Image by Kiaya Phillips

I had mixed feelings when I heard James Corden was making his return to the theatre. After years in the bubble that is the American acting scene I was curious whether he could truly return to his roots in theatre unaffected by Hollywood. Corden is more known now for his late night American talk show than any theatrical feat he has embarked on, but his last theatre performance as the farcical Francis Henshall in ‘One Man and Two Guvnors’ (2011) is still a revered production in the drama space and I would argue he deserves recognition for this performance. Nevertheless, when I took my seat in the Old Vic I was curious to see what Corden would bring to the stage that night after a thirteen year theatre hiatus.

The Constituent is a ninety minute brand new play by Joe Penhall that is political, comedic, violent, emotive and moving in every aspect. The narrative centres around both MP Monica (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), who is grappling with having to mitigate her natural capacity for compassion in her political position whilst also managing her family life, and ex serviceman turned personal security salesman Alec (played by James Corden), suffering with mental health issues and whose life is seemingly coming apart at the seams. Ultimately the play is about humanity. Simultaneously we empathise with Monica and the difficulty of her public position and her conflicting role as wife and mother, but also understand Alec’s desire for political change; we want to almost reach out and pull him back from the slippery slope he seems to be sliding down. Both Corden and Martin nailed down these characters to a tee. We are both shocked by them and yet understanding of them. The play is led between the conflict of personal safety versus community responsibility. Which is more important? And does this change when you work in a public facing role? Penhall explores these questions, yet leaves us to answer them. 

‘You’re dead behind the eyes, dead from the neck up’ Alec screams at Monica. And we are led to question the authenticity of politicians like Monica. Yet we see her empathy in ways that I can never imagine seeing in our real politicians. She refuses to see Alec, and others like him, in black and white. Despite how he treats her she looks for rehabilitation and release where she could easily give in and leave him to the unmerciful nature of the governmental system. She is a reminder of the “good and honest MP’s” that do still exist amongst the less so. This little bud of hope is an important reminder for Penhall to be reinforcing following the general election. 

The direction and set is minimal but effective, foregrounding the discussion between the characters on stage. With scene transitions cleverly accompanied by the politically infused indie tunes of Morrissey and Billy Bragg, we are reminded of political times past that still resonate today. 

With the country just having gone through a huge political shift, we can see how topical this play is. With its use of technology, references to COVID and direct jokes about parties like the Liberal Democrats, this is a play that is directly reflective of the political world of 2024. Nevertheless, it becomes universal in this specificity. This is a play written about politics in 2024 but could easily transfer to reflect the last ten years of politics, where we see time and time again examples of individuals, members of our community, broken down by a system that mistreats and fails them. 

It seems to me at the end of the play we are left with Alec’s ultimatum. Will he take the hand of help Monica is offering him after he has lost all else, or give into the loss and shame. Tears came to brim my eyes in those final moments. Penhall leaves me with hope in my heart that Alec picks the former but a sick feeling in my stomach that he doesn’t. 

The production was received with a standing ovation from the audience that it was indeed worthy of. As Corden exited offstage right I saw him mouth to Martin ‘OH MY GOD’, and oh my god indeed, this was a production to remember.