‘The Constituent’ Review: James Corden Impresses in Timely but Contrived Political Play

Regardless of one’s political allegiance, it’s almost universally agreed that in recent years political expediency rather than truth has been, literally, the governing principle behind speeches from Britain’s right-wing politicians. Sadly, the same is true of the two leads in Joe Penhall’s contrived, adversarial three-hander about confrontations between a local opposition MP (member of parliament) and her angry constituent. That James Corden would choose “The Constituent” for his return to the British stage, however, makes complete sense. His convincing performance shows a side of him previously unseen on either side of the Atlantic.

Picking up on the prevailing real-life threat to MPs – the worst of which was Labour politician Jo Cox being murdered on her way to meet constituents in 2016 – the play presents increasingly fraught meetings between local MP Monica (Anna Maxwell Martin) and ex-serviceman Alec (Corden) who served in Afghanistan and is now running his own small business providing security.

More from Variety

In their first scene together, he is showing her how to keep herself safe thanks to the cameras and panic buttons he has fitted in her office. And even though he reminds her that they were at school together when growing up, there’s already underlying tension because he is evidently a worryingly better talker than a listener.

You don’t need a crystal ball, however, to have spotted that the opening scene’s telephone call between Monica and her unseen child is an obvious portent of things to come. “You have to be diplomatic about it,” she says. “Don’t confront it … you have to find a way to de-escalate it.” And that, of course, is exactly what she attempts with Alec.

Director Matthew Warchus (“Matilda – The Musical”) opts for a naturalistic traverse staging to underline the oppositional forces at play across Rob Howell’s single open office set. Yet with furniture and props repeatedly being taken on and off in blackout, it feels surprisingly clumsy. Yet the temperature continues to rise.

Maxwell Martin tries to keep a lid on her impatience but is compromised by her wish to be understanding and helpful to a constituent who is spiralling into crisis with an appearance looming in a family court over visiting rights to his children. But Alec’s anger and resentment, never far from the surface, erupts. Leaning over her desk he yells repeatedly that she is dead behind the eyes, “Dead.” Cut.

Which is the play’s major weakness. Scenes are conveniently and repeatedly cut at the point of highest drama. That allows a succession of shock moments, but the refusal to dramatize fully the confrontations and, crucially, how they survive them, robs the play of truth and depth. It’s increasingly clear that the stages of Alec and Monica’s fight are being contrived so that the characters can discuss the state of Britain and its politicians via the dilemmas they face. Analytically sound and justifiably impassioned though their speeches are, the arguments feel increasingly schematic.

The play is at its weakest with the arrival of the third character, a policeman assigned to Monica who is blunt and dim. That provides welcome comedy but it’s painfully apparent that he’s there solely to force a plot twist that presents Monica with a political and moral dilemma that has disastrous consequences for all three. But despite Zachary Hart’s best efforts, his character is so underwritten that tension is lost.

In spite of its structural weakness, the play works on its audience which is a significant tribute to both Maxwell Martin and Corden who remain alert and alive throughout. She perfectly calibrates Monica’s mounting exasperation, fear and exhaustion. There’s an earnestness about her that suits someone struggling to help while battling with her desire to get rid of him.

Corden takes the supreme comic self-confidence that catapulted him from “One Man, Two Guvnors” to “The Late Late Show” and flips it. Despite lines that are initially chatty and chirpy, Corden shows how bumptious his character really is. Brimming with dangerous resentment he grows ever more verbally and physically threatening until finally, fueled by rage, he breaks apart.

His final scene, a kind of coda, painfully shows a man wrecked. It’s not the fault of either actor that this scene and the play’s politics are effective but not ultimately affecting.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.