Steve Coogan As Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Reviewed at the Hammersmith Apollo, November 11, 2008:

Well, you can’t say you weren’t warned by the very title of this tour. Steve Coogan’s stage comeback after ten years is most definitely a show of two halves: the superlative Alan Partridge plus a collection of characters that are not only less successful, but woefully less funny.

Arrive in the interval and you’ll have a markedly better experience than those who endure the first half, in which the once-brilliant creations either tread water, or sink miserably. If they were launched on today’s comedy circuit in this state, it’s unlikely you’d ever have heard of the likes of Pauline Calf or Tommy Saxondale.

Visiting London after six weeks on the road, the good news is that Coogan is now on top of his material, and his struggles to remember his lines – as covered in our review of the Oxford date about a week into his schedule (below) – are a thing of the past. The script’s been tinkered with, too, with a few extra lines and some tightening of more troublesome segments. But it doesn’t much help the doomed supporting characters… it’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, or changing the in-flight movies on United 93.

If anything, the first half seems more sluggish that the earlier date; possibly just because it’s a second viewing, possibly because the Hammersmith Apollo isn’t the most intimate of spaces to generate an atmosphere (just wait till he hits the O2 next month), or possibly because the indifferently-received characters have lost their lustre even for their creator.

Pauline Calf makes a decent fist of the opening number, a wry tongue-in-cheek track that tries to infuse some Bond-style glamour to the Marriot Hotel chain. But quickly her routine descends into a litany of cheap innuendo, neither delivered nor written with much flair. Surely lines like ‘Take me in the executive box’ should be beneath him, yet they never got much better than that.

Tommy Saxondale also lobs in a few double-entendres, and he sings, too, though quite why is anyone’s guess as it’s flimsy stuff – as is his tiresome anti-drugs lecture, that goes little further than: look at this picture of someone looking odd! They must be on smack!

And the first half reaches its nadir with desperately wacky Eighties comic Duncan Thicket – a character that’s deliberately not supposed to be funny, unlike the others which achieve this by unhappy accidented. His segment has been quite extensively edited over the course of the tour, but the real Timmy Mallett would still possibly be more entertaining than this thinly disguised parody. Possibly.

Just when it looks as if the entire show is going to be as flat as Partridge’s beloved Norfolk, Paul Calf rolls on in his wheelchair, with some cracking lines. This segment has also been through the rewrite mill, but this time emerges much sharper for it. There is still too much aimless padding – and another unnecessary song – but at least the stand-out gags serve as a long-overdue reminder of why Coogan got to be famous in the first place.

Part two, however, was a different animal altogether – a hugely amusing romp with the character everyone had come to see. East Anglia’s favourite chat show host has reinvented as a personal development coach, his complete lack of empathy for his clients proving no barrier for his rampant ego, his lack of self-awareness revealing more about his tragic life, and his script just bursting with hilarious moments. Somehow he can be haughtily pompous, yet confess to soiling himself in a chain store, in the space of one sentence. Gimmicks about in this high-octane section, but the character is so complete, and the script so sharp, that this is genuinely hilarious from start to finish.

That self-importance manifests itself in a grandiose biographical play about Sir Thomas More, clunking with anachronisms of language and style, appallingly acted and almost collapsing under the weight of its artless historical exposition. The ‘bad play’ idea is nothing new, and Coogan sometimes overplays the woodenness, but this is entertaining enough.

Ending the show as ‘himself’ or rather a Tommy Steele Cockney version of himself in a joyous song-and-dance number gleefully harnessing the outrageous, foul-mouthed spirit of Jerry Springer The Opera to flamboyantly send up his tabloid reputation. It’s a worthy show-stopper if ever there was one.

You wouldn’t think this slick and funny second half was from the same performer responsible for the embarrassing shoddy first half. If this was an exercise to prove that Coogan was more than Partridge, it failed miserably. But for underlining just how uniquely brilliant that character is, job done.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Hammersmith, November 2008

First review at the Oxford New Theatre, October 3

He doesn’t have to do this, of course, but Steve Coogan’s decision to go on the road after ten years proves that the thrill of live performance is irresistible, no matter how famous you are.

The title says it all. In the first half of the show Coogan reprises several favourites from his past, while part two is dedicated to the superlative Partridge. It’s a show of two halves in other respects, too. Before the interval, Coogan seems hesitant, phoning in a performance that lacks flair and electricity despite some nice lines in the script. But when Norfolk’s finest takes to the stage, the magic returns, as he builds to an audacious and spectacular song-and-dance finale that only serves to highlight the spark that was missing from much that preceded it.

He started strongly, with Pauline Calf – more relevant than ever in this age of low-rent, high-maintenance WAGs. She opened with a wonderfully bold Bond-style production number, literally singing the praises of Marriot hotels and the D-list celebs she claims to have encountered there – the first of many digs at low-level fame in this show.

Anything best-selling author Jordan can do, Pauline can do just as tackily, which is why she treated us to an extract from her delightfully clunky novel, unsubtly drawn from her own life. It was a solidly funny routine, if unadventurous: Coogan used exactly the same set-up for his delightfully promiscuous creation in that last tour.

Next up was Tommy Saxondale, lecturing us, half-heartedly, on the perils of drugs, which initially comprised little more than a series of pseudo-sardonic comments on strange pictures, claiming to be ‘before and after’ shots of drug use. It’s rather easy stuff, the sort of captions you might see on half-funny greetings cards. However, the second part of his set, about the sweet granny who was actually a powerful drug godfather, fleshed out the initial idea nicely, wringing out plenty of chuckles from the unlikely scenario.

Duncan Thickett is one of Coogan’s oldest characters, but still seemed new to most of the audience, who appeared baffled by this bad Eighties stand-up, complete with zany sound effects and novelty suit. Using irony to make good comedy out of bad is a tricky path, and while Coogan had a few knowing takes on the failings of easy observational and nostalgic stand-up, this never really hit the spot. The fact that, with a couple of notable exceptions, characters like the one he’s trying to parody aren’t generally successful any more can’t have helped.

Heavy-drinking Northern layabout Paul Calf came on in a wheelchair – as with his fictional sister Pauline, reprising a gag from an earlier show. For half this set, Coogan seemed again to be simply going through the motions, even doing a ‘prick with a needle…’ double entendre that would have shamed the music halls, even if he did have the sense to feign embarrassment about it. However when Calf’s flamboyant, if dodgy, gipsy lover takes to the stage, the script finds a much richer vein of one-liners to explore.

Throughout the show the writing is strong, or at least solid, but Coogan doesn’t seem to have the command of the material that would allow him to wring the most out of. He stumbles over his words several times, and keeps glancing at clipboards. This might still be early in the tour, but when you’ve 1,800 people paying just shy of £40, you shouldn’t still be practising. Coogan’s concentration seems to be devoted to simply remembering his lines, rather than on delivering them with oomph.

Betwixt Coogan’s characters, a small ensemble, including Edinburgh regular Steve Oram and Garth Marenghi star Alice Lowe, perform filler sketches that, like the main scenes, are good but not quite great; although the idea of God and Devil dating – and quarrelling – is especially strong.

Partridge is who almost everyone has come to see, of course, and when he gets a rapturous reception at the start of part two, Coogan raises his game to match. Desperately trying to exploit the last shreds of his celebrity, Partridge now runs a personal development programme – Alan’s Forward Solutions – which he relentlessly sells with all the unconvincing zeal of a mid-level sales conference for surgical supports in the East Midlands region.

He’s also written, produced, directed and stars in his own one-man version of the story of Sir Thomas More, which is as ill-researched, anachronistic and dreadfully performed as you would predict. In fact, it makes Acorn Antiques look like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet… but there’s plenty of fun in the inevitable way Alan’s precious ego-vehicle falls apart at the seams.

There’s a reason Partridge is Coogan’s most popular creation. His naïve absence of self-awareness and myriad vulnerabilities have such appeal that his petty grudges, monstrous insensitivity and desperate quest for even modest showbiz success seem almost endearing. But he also seems to get the best lines, as Coogan and his collaborators have a more instinctive feel for the character. The gags are packed in, and the talk-show element, especially, zings along.

All the stops come out at the end, when Coogan has his tongue-in-cheek ‘…and this is me’ moment, breaking into an impressively choreographed West End song and dance number about his hookers-and-cocaine tabloid reputation. But don’t expect the catchy number to be getting much Radio 2 airplay… it is deliciously, extravagantly offensive.

Shame the hesitant first half didn’t live up to the brilliant second. Despite some sparkling moments, and plenty of mid-level chuckles, the scenes without Partridge didn’t have the sense of occasion you’d expect of one of Britain’s biggest and best comedy stars making a comeback after a decade away. Best think of these of an extended warm-up act you don’t care less about before the star of the show blows the place apart.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Oxford, October 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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