Thursday, 27 November 2008

Back of the net (eventually)


* Warning: contains spoilers *

Hard to believe, but Steve Coogan's triumphant 'The Man Who Thinks He's It' show, my video copy of which has very nearly worn out, is ten years old. Since then, he's performed on the silver screen in '24 Hour Party People' and 'A Cock & Bull Story' amongst other films; he's created a whole new character with his own TV series, ageing roadie Tommy Saxondale; he's tried his hand at straight drama with 'Sunshine'; he's voiced a pair of characters in an animated series, Peter Baynham's 'I Am Not An Animal'; and his Baby Cow production company has been responsible for bringing some of the brightest, sharpest new comedy shows around into our living rooms - 'The Mighty Boosh', 'Gavin & Stacey' and 'Ideal', to name but three. Meanwhile Simon Pegg and Julia Davis, members of the 'The Man Who Thinks He's It' supporting cast, have gone on to become stars in their own right with 'Spaced' and 'Nighty Night' respectively.

And now here Coogan is, back on stage with a new show, the self-deprecatingly titled 'Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters'. The question is: can he still cut it as a stand-up? And the answer, for the first half of the evening at least, has to be "No, not really".

The show begins, as did 'The Man Who Thinks He's It' (henceforth TMWTHI for brevity...), with Pauline Calf, singing a carefully choreographed song in praise of Marriott hotels. She has some sharp one-liners (Of a random bloke in the audience: "Cock like a bookie's pencil. You could time an egg by him"), but her 'set' disappointingly follows the same structure as in TMWTHI, concluding with her reading from her latest book, a spy thriller, and the gag about suffering concussion ("He said 'How many fingers have I got up?' and I thought 'Fuckin' 'ell, I must be paralysed too'"), while neatly delivered, is an old one.

Next is Tommy Saxondale, who turns out to be the least successful of the less successful characters, so to speak. Presumably Coogan gives him a slot to capitalise on the popularity of the series, but the decision to have him half-arsedly deliver a "Just Say No" style presentation on the dangers of drugs could have been rather better thought out, and laughs are at a premium. A large part of the problem is that Saxondale isn't really at home in the present company; he's not really played in the series as an out-and-out comedy character, but as a more true-to-life and frequently pathetic figure who's got an modicum of decency buried beneath his exterior bluster. In many ways he's a revealing reflection of his creator, anxiously drifting further away from the excesses of his youth. But, on the big stage in the glare of the spotlights, there's no room for the touching subtleties of the TV series, and he's a bit lost and hardly helped by the most lumpen of the evening's musical numbers.

Then, in his newsprint trousers looking like a member of Bros gone street, it's Duncan Thicket, who I gather is something of a Marmite character even for fellow Coogan aficionados. I loved the way Coogan used him to parody the twin cults of observational and self-deprecatory comedy in TMWTHI, as well as some of the one-liners his own character David Daft came out with, but tonight the pisstake of nostalgia comedy beloved of Peter Kaye and his mini-me Jason Manford - pregnant with possibility - is frustratingly underdeveloped. His segment is salvaged, though, when his ventriloquist's dummy starts turning the air blue before pinning him back in his chair by the throat.

The last act of the first half is Paul Calf, in many ways the best thing about TMWTHI but here treading old ground from the very outset - arriving on stage in a motorised wheelchair, when the music stops he tilts his head to one side and says in a robotic Stephen-Hawking-meets-Manc monotone "The universe is fucking massive..." His romantic dalliance with a gypsy is a lazy way of guaranteeing of cheap laughs too, though it does at least give rise to one great retort: "You're a Scouser AND a gypsy? Christ, I'm lucky I've still got my second name!"

Thankfully the second half belongs to Alan Partridge, quite literally.

It's hard to overstate how much of an Alan fan I am (though I haven't gone as far as the chest tattoo of his head just yet). I quote him on average at least once every day. Whenever I find myself in Currys I have to try out all the CD players, muttering "Nice tray action" for my own amusement. Going to Norwich feels like going on a pilgrimage. I once drank out of an aerialator (though it was red wine, not coffee - the red wine being what convinced me it would be a good idea). In my student days, my housemates and I even hosted a Partridge-themed party: Scotch eggs, ladyboys (the drink combination, that is), someone dressed in sports casual, someone else gyrating in a PVC thong, some very dodgy printed material shut in a drawer guests were given strict instructions not to open...

So coming face-to-face with Coogan's most rounded and celebrated character (and quite rightly so) is the fulfilment of a long-term ambition. A brilliant opening montage and voiceover has us bursting with anticipation, and we're not disappointed when Alan leaps onto the stage and breaks straight into a medley of songs including, most memorably, Queen's 'Radio Ga Ga'.

As with TMWTHI, Alan's here in his role as life coach, speaking from a position of authority and experience as someone who now enjoys fraternising with the likes of Monty Don at a private members' club but who only a few years earlier reached his nadir by "shitting myself in PC World". He imparts his wisdom in the form of his Forward Solutions presentation, using not a blind man's cane but an electronically modified gauntlet that he hasn't quite got to grips with, at one point inadvertently alighting upon a stash of gay S&M photos amidst the slideshow and later accidentally blowing the head off an animated JFK with a virtual shotgun.

The interviewees are almost redundant, the bulk of the interview segment taken up with a visual gag which finds Alan mistakenly signing up for penis enlargement online and, as his guests continue talking, hurriedly composing an email to cancel, his laptop screen projected above the stage for the audience's amusement. Apparently this is a device used in Patrick Marber's 'Closer' - not seen either the play or the film so I can't really comment myself, but as Marber is Alan's co-creator it seems likely this is a licenced borrow for the purposes of a knowing in-joke rather than an unlicenced steal.

The set concludes with Alan's self-penned, self-directed and self-performed play about the life of Sir Thomas More, the genius of which is largely the ease with which Coogan plays one character attempting to play another ("Your dinner, my lord - boar's head and lark's tongue." "What? I ordered the lasagne..."). Best of all, though, is the moment when Alan loses his thread and forgets his lines, floundering around in a 'Groundhog Day' style trap from which he is unable to escape until at last thrown a lifeline by one of his fellow actors.

But that's not quite the end. In the spoof behind-the-scenes footage of the TMWTHI show, Coogan hammed up the popular perception that beneath all the masks he's an unlikeable person. On this tour he goes on the mock-offensive, claiming in a spectacular finale that 'Everyone's A Bit Of A Cunt Sometimes' as the rest of cast dance around and twirl umbrellas in a superb very definitely post-watershed take on 'Mary Poppins'. I'm not alone in finding myself humming the tune long into the night.

So, a real pleasure in the end - though perhaps 'Alan Partridge And Other Much, Much Less Successful Characters' would have been an even more apt title?