The Constituent by Joe Penhall – review:

“The strong performances from Anna Maxwell Martin and James Cordon elevate the material, making for a compelling, if flawed, theatrical experience”

Old Vic Theatre –
Review by: Mark Arbouine
afridiziak ratings
Published: Thursday 27 June 2024, 16:30pm

James Corden, Zachary Hart and Anna Maxwell Martin in The Constituent at The Old Vic – credit Manuel Harlan
James Corden, Zachary Hart and Anna Maxwell Martin in The Constituent at The Old Vic – credit Manuel Harlan

With the general election looming, Joe Penhall’s The Constituent, currently playing at the Old Vic Theatre in London, feels like it is ideally timed as the public become more focussed on British politics. The play follows the interactions between a hard-working Member of Parliament, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, and a trouble ex-serviceman, brought to life by James Corden, and explores the boundaries that exist between them at a time when the safety of politicians is a growing concern in society.

Although the play features strong performances and raises interesting questions about support for veterans, disillusionment with politics and the security of politicians, it left me not entirely convinced that it had won my vote.

The action takes place in the office of Monica (Maxwell Martin), an idealistic MP who is balancing the pressures of home life with her commitment to do the best for her constituents, one of which is Alec (Corden) who called on to install a security system for her. Alec is one of those tradespeople who I would find annoying as he seemed to like talking to his customer at least as much as he liked doing the work he was employed to carry out.

There are some nice moments of humour in their chat during which he reveals he knows Monica from when they went to school together. Once she realises who he is, they share some personal information which prompts Alec to tell of his military service in Afghanistan and how his marriage has broken down and is currently going through an acrimonious divorce in the family court.

He wants her help with his divorce, particularly getting access to his children, and although she wants to assist him as much as she is able, she makes him aware that she can’t get involved in his court case, especially after Alec tells her he has made a violent threat towards his wife. As their interactions play out over time, Alec becomes more erratic and angry which allows Corden to move outside his usual comedic persona to deliver a powerful and moving performance, capturing the desperation of a man pushed to the brink.  

Maxwell Martin delivers a brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Monica displaying both the strong resolve of a seasoned politician and the vulnerability of someone coming under attack. The third member of the cast, Zachary Hart, provides solid support as Mellor, a police officer involved in Parliamentary security, who has his own views about how the law should be carried out which leads to a shocking and violent altercation between him and with Alec.

Penhall‘s script is sharp and thought-provoking. He tackles a lot of themes including the rise of political violence, whether men are treated fairly by family courts, the support veterans receive when returning to civilian life, mental health struggles and the erosion of trust between the public and those in authority. The dialogue is strong, with moments of sharp wit contrasting the play’s darker undertones. However, the play struggles to accommodate with sufficient depth all the subjects it attempts to cover and in deciding whether it wants to be a political thriller or a poignant social drama.

Director Matthew Wurchus keeps the pace brisk and the interactions between the main characters is taut, however, there are numerous scene changes which take just that bit too long and kills any tension that has been allowed to build.

The simple set of an MP’s office, designed by Rob Howell, has significant on-stage seating so the audience is on either side of the action. This creates a more confined space than what you would normally see on the Old Vic stage and creates a restrictive feel which reflects the tension that grows between the three characters.

The Constituent is a timely exploration of the human side of politics and a reminder of the emotional toll, challenges and potential dangers faced by those working to serve the public. It is an interesting production and the strong performances from Anna Maxwell Martin and James Cordon elevate the material, making for a compelling, if flawed, theatrical experience.

Need to know: The Constituent plays at the Old Vic, London until 10 Aug 2024