Stratagem amuses, but can’t capture the full Alan Partridge cringe

Steve Coogan returns to the stage as his iconic cringe comedy creation Alan Partridge in Stratagem, filmed at the O2 in London. Despite getting off to a strong start, it’s a patchy show, writes Matt Glasby.

It’s hard to think of a comedy character who’s successfully bestrode as many different media as Alan Partridge. Created by Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, Norfolk’s most famous broadcaster started life on the radio (On the Hour) in 1991 before graduating to TV (The Day Today). He then went solo (Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge), starring in his own sitcom (I’m Alan Partridge), live shows (Steve Coogan Live: The Man Who Thinks He’s It), films (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa), books (I, Partridge), web series (Mid-Morning Matters) and podcasts (From the Oasthouse). Nothing dates like comedy, so the fact that most of these are still funny is an incredible achievement.

Perhaps the character has remained relevant because small-minded middle-aged men are still making fools of themselves on air. Perhaps it’s because, over the years, Partridge’s male fans have found themselves turning into versions of him.

It’s certainly been a love-hate relationship for Coogan, who once called him “an albatross around my neck”, mixing his avian metaphors. Witness the title of his 2009 tour, Steve Coogan Live: As Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters.

As time has gone it’s become harder to separate the actor from his best-loved creation. When Coogan arrived late for an awards show I attended, he greeted the crowd with a triumphant, “A-ha!” No matter that he was nominated for writing and starring in the rather more serious Philomena.

In 2022, Coogan toured the UK in Stratagem, a show co-written with long-time collaborators Neil and Rob Gibbons and directed by the Gibbons and John L Bird. With Partridge back on UK TV in This Time, it could be seen as a kind of victory lap, but there is the slightest whiff of I’ve-got-a-massive-tax-bill about the decision, particularly as none of the new material feels exactly vintage.

I first saw the show at the Edinburgh Playhouse (capacity 3,000) and enjoyed it, but this review is based on the filmed version of a performance at the O2, London (capacity 20,000), which is clearly a less satisfactory way to experience it. It certainly revealed some weaker spots.

After an exclusive new filmed intro, Stratagem begins. It’s meant to be a motivational system, like the character’s earlier Forward Solutions, but mostly it’s just an excuse for a series of more or less successful sketches and gambits.

On a stage he describes as being like a Meccano women’s prison he made as a child, Partridge appears, resplendent in white, because he asked himself, “What would Christ wear if he was Steve Jobs?” An energetic opening sees him performing Starship’s We Built This City (“On slavery… sorry about that I’ve been reading the Guardian”), a rap intro and engaging with the audience.

It’s a strong start. Before the lights have even come up he makes it known he “wishes you a particularly warm welcome if you are ethnically diverse or gender fluid, but makes no special effort to welcome straight white males because they always turn up”. Shots of the audience confirm this.

There’s some great asides about how you should never say “motherfucker” in Norfolk, and funny business with an audience cam. One man’s face, he tells us, says two words: “Classic FM”. In truth, Coogan, a seasoned stand-up, doesn’t miss a beat here, so it’s a shame that the rest of the show relies so much on him interacting with filmed material or his underwritten ensemble.

So we get CCTV footage of Alan’s assistant, Lynne (Felicity Montagu), looking after his house. Alan interacts with himself as a child—actually a young actress, miming—and his future self, a CG-embellished Alan on the big screen, but these sections badly miss the point. Partridge is funniest when he’s going off at tangents and tripping himself up, or embarrassing himself in front of someone. The millisecond gaps between lines kill the comedy because that’s where the cringe is meant to come.

If these sections are amusing but patchy, the song The Laughter of Love, a tribute to Alan’s lost girlfriend, Virginia, brings things screeching to a halt. The Gibson brothers have been great at introducing pathos to the character, despite his self-importance, but inventing a dead partner is a low blow—particularly as she doesn’t stay dead for the duration of the show.

The second half, though enlivened by the appearance of Irish Partridge lookalike Martin Brennan (from This Time), feels particularly shapeless. It’s almost as if actually using the Stratagem strategy would have made for a more successful structure.

After 60 minutes, we’re told, rather quickly, that the “S” in Stratagem stands for “start” (“done that”), “T” for “turn up” (“you have”) and so on, but I’d love to know more about “E” or “Eggs, eggs, eggs”, especially if it would save another song and dance number.

Really, even with the intro, interval and curtain call there still isn’t enough material for an 84-minute show. It’s not a disaster, but you’d think a character who’s already filled so many hours with laughter would have no trouble managing a couple more.