The Constituent, Old Vic

Thursday 27th June 2024

James Corden, Zachary Hart and Anna Maxwell Martin in The Constituent. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Good timing — as the UK’s general election campaign goes into its final week, this large-scale commercial venue is host to a political play which is both a state-of-the-nation manifesto and a picture of our current discontents. Joe Penhall’s The Constituent is a three-hander that explores the strains and stresses of being a female Labour constituency MP in the current culture of fear. Directed by Matthew Warchus, it is the 24th premiere to be staged here since he became artistic director in 2015, and boasts a star cast led by James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin.

The context of the story is not only the upcoming general election vote, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer fight for power, but also what Warchus describes as the “long shadow” cast by the murders of the MPs Jo Cox (2016) and David Amess (2021), a reminder that the openness of a democratic system now runs the risk of being vulnerable to extremist violence. In Penhall’s play, Monica is a 40-something Labour backbencher in a London constituency who is surprised that the security man fitting her new alarm system in her office is Alec. He went to primary school with her. Their mothers used to know each other.

This coincidental connection allows Alec, a former soldier whose marriage is falling apart and who is now involved in a custody battle for his young children, to open up about his problems. At first, this suits Monica, who prides herself on her ability to empathise with her constituents, but soon the situation becomes complicated as Alec asks her to intervene on his behalf and she points out that she is not legally able to do so. Frustrated by Monica’s inability to help, Alec gets increasingly angry so Monica consults Mellor, a constable working in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection force.

Gradually, over 90 minutes, the situation escalates, illustrating Penhall and Warchus’s point that in any confrontation between empathy and fear, it is fear that usually wins out. But although the anxieties articulated by Monica are very familiar to women in Britain today, with the issues of street safety and stalking (all amplified by digital echo chambers and cancel culture), the drama is equally about the feeling that Britain is broken, and that public servants are powerless to help. The dialogue includes mentions of hospitals, schools and of course the police, exemplified by the character of the eccentric Mellor, and politicians — none of whom are able to fix things.

As in his masterpiece Blue/Orange, Penhall creates a triangular relationship between an idealist (Monica) and a pragmatist (Mellor), plus a wild card (Alec). Although this time the set up is neither as dynamic nor as deep as in Blue/Orange, the debate about how to change society for the better is certainly more relevant than ever. The main problem is that Penhall has no real idea of moving beyond the rather sterile tension between the ineffective do-gooder and the clumsy cop. Likewise, Alec the increasingly toxic male, an angry father for justice and his online followers, is a bit of a cultural cliché.

The Constituent is a play that inevitably seems like a summary of the effects of the past 14 years of Conservative rule, and includes a case study in local politics as a lollipop lady — whose job it is to help kids safely across the street — is made redundant by a cash-strapped council. But other offstage incidents, such as a hit and run road accident, seem less important than the way that male and female victimhood is articulated by Monica and Alec. But being caring and correct is shown as ineffective in the face of the dark places that the wounded mind of a ex-squaddie can take you. That is, if you believe in these characters.

Although some of the exchanges between these personalities have moments of emotional truth, I do find it hard to believe fully in either the characters or in their relationships with each other. Despite the undoubted skill of the actors, and certainly Corden and Maxwell Martin deliver precise performances, I feel rather unengaged by them, and certainly unconvinced by the character of Mellor, who seems much too odd to be a policeman (I know, I know, but still…). On top of this I miss the expansive imagination which Penhall has often been capable of — a lot of the writing here is rather flat. It never really takes off.

Warchus’s production, which is designed by Rob Howell, has a traverse staging, which means that the audience acts like onlookers watching ourselves as well as the action. In this forum Corden begins the evening in his familiar and jovial mood, with well-timed one-liners, then gradually his Alec turns into a much darker, much more moody and unpredictable character. As a good contrast, Maxwell Martin’s legally minded Monica cares both for her family and society, while also capable of being spiteful or losing her cool. As a foil to both is Zachary Hart’s cynical, if rather underwritten, Mellor. Yet despite these excellent performances, the play fails to grip. Disappointing.

This review first appeared on The Theatre Times

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