The last time Alan Partridge graced the nation’s stages, he was trying his hand as a life coach, in Steve Coogan’s 2008 tour Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. The idea clearly stuck because, 14 years on, it’s been developed into a full show. Stratagem, Partridge tells us, is “a fun way to share knowledge that, I believe, will change your life.” And so begins a very satisfying two hours for fans of Coogan’s deathless alter ego, as Alan combines motivational PowerPoint with time travel, song-and-dance, and a relaxation exercise turned slanging match with an upstart protege.
The whole show, created with Coogan’s Partridge co-writers Neil and Rob Gibbons, is tight, well-worked and has its own satisfying little narrative arc, as the flimsiness of Alan’s life-coach pretensions is revealed. Coogan is far from the first comic to find pathos in the overreach of motivational speakers, but Stratagem doesn’t turn much fire on that soft target. Really, it’s just two hours of tremendous silliness, revelling in Partridge’s foot-in-mouth illness-at-ease, making hay in the chasm between his fussy, small-minded reality and the big-vision sophisticate he longs to be.
All this is achieved with the help of a troupe of young backing dancers whose friendship Partridge is needily eager to claim, and cameos from comic and Starstruck actor Emma Sidi as a successful Stratagem graduate and a mouthy audience member whom Alan ill-advisedly invites on stage. None of which, of course, suggests a man whose life advice you’d go anywhere near. But no matter: in act one, Partridge focuses inwards instead, co-opting the magic of theatre (as he keeps telling us) to address first his 11-year-old and then his 103-year-old selves. The latter is to be found in a dystopian 2065 cyber-Norwich, a half-man, half-avatar with an ageing Partridge face and the lower half of a can-can dancer in fishnets.
Will we still be laughing at Partridge when he’s a centenarian? You wouldn’t bet against it: the character whom Coogan once considered “an albatross around his neck” is nowadays at the centre of his own thriving multi-platform metaverse. And Coogan clearly takes pleasure in the performance. I don’t just mean the endless adenoidal pettifogging, which reaches its apogee here in an 80s power-ballad routine that Partridge keeps interrupting to discuss the finer points of Lib Dem politics. It’s also the rich comedy of physical awkwardness, as Alan inches uncertainly in and out of someone else’s follow-spot, or disguises himself as soft furnishing. His trendy upstage graphics, which ape the famous iPod silhouette ads, are also hijacked by a precious visual gag that will live luridly long in the memory.
Where does all this leave the Stratagem programme, and changing our lives for the better? Barely anywhere. In act two, Partridge gets back to the point, extrapolating some daft anagrams and bullet-pointing the programme’s nonsense principles. One of these – atonement – is illustrated in dialogue with a newer Coogan alter ego, the Irish rebel singer Martin Brennan, whom Partridge slighted on BBC One’s This Time and now seeks to make peace with by means of a penny whistle.
The show is, then, an extension rather than an expansion of what Partridge does. Another splash around in the shallows of self-delusion, sexual repression and midlife unease. But no one makes that territory funnier than Partridge, as Coogan proves again in this joyful show.