First Night: Grotesquely appalling - but nobody does it better

Steve Coogan Lyceum Theatre London

ANY POLL of people you would least like to sit next to at a dinner party would this week no doubt be topped by those two ill-disciplined sportsmen, Paolo Di Canio and Will Carling. But you can bet your leatherette driving-gloves that the irredeemably ghastly chat-show host, Alan Partridge, would not be far behind them.

For all that, he is unfeasibly popular. We have an inexplicable yet enduring passion for comic monsters, stretching from Alf Garnett through Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew. Partridge is the latest ogre we love to loathe.

But - and this is the really alarming bit - he is only one of Steve Coogan's gallery of grotesques. The comedian dons different fright-masks with the gleeful relish of a child at a Halloween party.

His new show at the Lyceum Theatre - attended last night by enough C- list celebs to fill several series of Partridge's Knowing Me, Knowing You - opened with Pauline Calf, the unthinking man's slapper, crooning a spoof Bond song, "The Man Who Thinks He's It" (which doubles as the title of the show).

"Do you like my dress?" she went on to inquire. "Bill Clinton gave it to me - well, he put a deposit on it." Ah-ha.

She was followed on stage by a full house of horrors - the crap stand- up, Duncan Thickett, the crap singer, Tony Ferrino, and the crap dole- boy, Paul Calf. You get the idea.

The show was uneven. Ferrino's "tribute to working women", Lap-Dancing Lady, was, for instance, a one-joke wonder stretched beyond its natural life.

But Coogan saved the best till last. Live, Partridge is even more compellingly awful than he is on the television. Coogan brings his small-town bigotry vividly to life. When he's in your face, Partridge can more easily get up your nose.

We get a frisson from seeing all our own most reprehensible Little Englander tendencies made flesh and clothed in an olive-green casual sports jacket.

At one point, in a cod motivational business lecture, (Amstrad - Making It Happen '92), Partridge attempted to show someone he thought was a gypsy why we are all unique: "You couldn't host a thrice-weekly chat show. I couldn't dump a burnt mattress in someone's front garden."

Later on in his chat-show, he tried his best to fawn to an attractive female dry-stone waller.

"I'd imagined a bearded woman working through the night, perhaps eating big mice."

The comic's knack is to inhabit other people so seamlessly that you can no longer see the join between Coogan and character.

Thickett pointed out that comedians these days are all trying their hand at character comedy: "Dress up, put on a daft hat, earn a few bob." Everybody may now be doing it, but in the words of another Bond movie song, nobody does it better.

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