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  2. Theatre
28 June 2024

James Corden’s comedy of menace

Joe Penhall’s new play The Constituent, starring Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin, is a funny, disturbing vision of public service and private despair.

By Jason Cowley

Joe Penhall’s play takes place in the round: a cast of three, 90 intense minutes, and no interval. There are musical interludes between scenes – the Smiths, Billy Bragg – but apart from that not much respite from the incessant flow of words – words of accusation and of political complaint, as well as some well-aimed darts at the woeful state of British democracy.

It begins in the drab constituency office of a back-bench MP named Monica (Anna Maxwell Martin). We are never told her party, but she is presumably Labour and delivers an amusing barb at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, the perennial fall-guys. She is talking to one of her children on the phone. Maxwell Martin, whom I never tire of watching, is briefly in Motherland mode, showcasing her repertoire of facial tics and grimaces. Visiting the office is a security specialist, Alec (James Corden), dressed in shorts, white socks and a fleece. He is fitting cameras and a panic alarm under her desk – a bleak reminder that two MPs have been murdered since 2016. They start talking. It turns out they used to go to the same school. There is a lightness and playfulness to their early exchanges. Corden is in good, jaunty, Essex-man form, and one settles in for an evening of comedy – until the mood shifts ominously.

Corden is a brilliant comic actor, but Alec is a challenging role: a disturbed veteran of the Afghanistan misadventure, estranged from his wife and mired in a dispute in the family courts. He is on anti-psychotics and out of luck. “No one is having a conversation about men,” he complains. Monica is sympathetic but, in return visits, Alec becomes needy and demanding, even menacing. There is a third character, Mellor (Zachary Hart), a cynical police officer who later seeks to profit from Monica’s misfortune.

It’s thrilling to watch actors as good as this, and so familiar from television, on stage. But what begins as a comedy of manners and misunderstanding becomes something much darker: a drama about a broken man who has lost all faith in democracy and justice. At least it ends on a note of reconciliation.

The Constituent
The Old Vic, London, SE1, until 10 August

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[See more: A new A View from the Bridge captures the play’s humour and darkness]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain