The Constituent review – James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin explore basic human decency at the Old Vic

Joe Penhall’s new play runs until 10 August

James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin in a scene from The Constituent at the Old Vic
James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin in The Constituent, © Manuel Harlan

Integrity and basic human decency come under the spotlight and are found wanting in Joe Penhall’s new play, his first since the disappointing Mood Music, also seen here at the Old Vic in 2018. The Constituent is an opportune look at politicians and their responsibility to the people they serve, and also the limitations of where their obligations lie.

It’s enjoyable, tartly funny and almost reaches the tension level of a thriller as an ambiguous connection is established between good-hearted backbench MP Monica (Anna Maxwell Martin) and the ex-military man who arrives in her office to install security equipment but turns out to have a prior personal connection and a major agenda.

At a time when fury at public figures seems at an all-time high, Penhall’s script makes valid points about personal and professional boundaries, but is over-stuffed with themes. He touches, with humour and passion, on women’s safety, family law, the neglect of former servicemen, police corruption, men’s mental health, the chasms in social care between what’s needed and what’s available… It’s all interesting, important stuff and, as he proved in his masterpiece Blue/Orange and several times since, few modern playwrights can touch Penhall when it comes to putting intellectual conflict on stage.

But it feels too much for a 90-minute piece, especially when the pace and energy levels in Matthew Warchus’s mostly compelling production are repeatedly dissipated by overlong scene changes. Too often when the play is becoming really compulsive, it’s cut off by a blast of ear-splitting rock music and an inexplicably lengthy blackout. The cumulative effect becomes more frustration than fascination.

The Constituent marks the stage return, after more than a decade, of the divisive figure of James Corden, who left the theatre following his multi-award-winning turn in One Man, Two Guv’nors to become the darling (or the dunderhead, depending on your viewpoint) of the American late night talk show circuit. The titular role of PTSD-tormented Alec, whose messed-up life is dominated by medication and an ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife over their kids, was worth coming back for. Corden isn’t a subtle actor, painting with broad, blunt colours, and possessed of a monotonous line delivery that flattens much of his dialogue, but his unique combination of manic energy, bluster and simmering aggression work well for the character. So does his on-point comic timing and his ability to flip the switch into volcanic anger, even if he never fully convinces as someone who saw military service in the Middle East. He has an intriguing, troubling stillness that commands the attention, and is genuinely affecting in the final sequence where we see just how truly broken Alec is.

Anna Maxwell Martin in a scene from The Constituent at the Old Vic
Anna Maxwell Martin in The Constituent, © Manuel Harlan

In a superb performance, Maxwell Martin precisely, movingly captures Monica’s innate goodness but also her steeliness. She’s kind and compassionate but no pushover, and when she finally loses her rag both with Alec and the inept, prejudiced policeman (a wonderfully vivid Zachary Hart) assigned to protect her safety, the sense of a decent human pushed to their very limit is powerfully felt.

Rob Howell’s set design places a large portion of the audience on stage, which helps with the immediacy and makes the Old Vic feel more intimate than it actually is. The play is a fairly static three-hander and would probably hit with more potency in a simpler staging at a venue the size of, say, the Donmar or the Royal Court.

As a star vehicle for Corden and Maxwell Martin, The Constituent works well enough. There’s some cracking dialogue and the balance between comic and bleak is exquisitely handled, but it smacks of a very fine writer wanting to dash off something relevant and timely, without really offering anything genuinely illuminating or new. The abrupt ending is unsatisfying but, to be fair, that may be Penhall’s point: that for people in Alec’s precarious position, there is no satisfying ending.

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The Constituent

Final performance: 10 August 2024