Love him or hate him, James Corden is a vital part of our theatrical history

James Corden and Jemima Rooper in One Man, Two Guvnors at the Adelphi Theatre
James Corden and Jemima Rooper in One Man, Two Guvnors at the Adelphi Theatre - Alastair Muir

The hotly anticipated return of James Corden to the London stage this week – taking a leading role opposite Anna Maxwell Martin in a new play by Joe Penhall, The Constituent, at the Old Vic – inevitably casts hearts and minds back to the last time he trod the boards, over a decade ago, as well as inviting speculation as to what he’s up to now.

At Nicholas Hytner’s leaving-do at the National in March 2015, the director who truly made Corden a star looked back over his tenure before a gathering of those who had worked with him and brought the house down with the quip: “Something I will forever be proud of is the [contribution to] entertainment history we have made by being a small part in the rise and rise of James Corden.”

A funny line – which he conceded he had nicked from Alan Bennett – and obviously Hytner’s regime would have been gilded even if Corden had been nowhere near it. Yet the shows in which Corden starred at the NT – his name-making turn as Timms in Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) and then his knock-out performance at the heart of One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) which won him a Tony when it went on from the West End to Broadway – were defining badges of pride for Hytner’s directorship, embodying its ebullient and populist spirit.

There was something about Corden’s shtick that was on a different scale. Comedy and acting chops – and chat – like that? It was almost American, Mel Brooksy in its attention-seeking. And having road-tested all that to the hilt on stage, proving his mass appeal, small wonder it made the big-time possible. March 2015 indeed proved the moment superstar status beckoned for Hytner’s protégé: that month The Late Late Show with James Corden launched on CBS – a hosting gig earned as a result of One Man, Two Guvnors. Given that the stage show elicited industrial-strength energy and improvisational pizzazz, becoming the ringmaster of his own demented circus on TV was a natural next step.

In theory, over a thousand editions and millions of YouTube watches later, Corden returns a conquering hero. A generation has grown up agog at his antics, above all on the Late Late Show’s Carpool Karaoke segment which became a Who’s Who of his celebrity mates and the apotheosis of his chutzpah. Yet the odd much-publicised misstep – especially the 2022 spat concerning supposedly obnoxious behaviour at the New York restaurant Balthazar, which got him temporarily banned – has indicated his Marmite-like ability to divide opinion, and the readiness of many to think the worst of him.

James Corden with Dominic Cooper in The History Boys, in 2004
James Corden with Dominic Cooper in The History Boys, in 2004 - Alastair Muir

For some, he is both too much and too little: less a renaissance man than a jack of all trades, whose renown doesn’t match his achievements. His part in the debacle that was the movie version of Cats saw those claws re-sharpened – a fiercely critical eye dogs his every move. A natural-born entertainer? Yes, but the accompanying hoopla of his larger-than-life carry-on risks overkill for the Corden brand.

Some thought he’d make his comeback in a project with Hytner; but the Old Vic is close enough to his old stomping ground to make it feel like he’s reclaiming territory. His return is as much of an ‘event’ as Tom Holland’s recent West End debut. Still, the stakes are higher.

This is effectively his natural habitat. Yes, he’s a super TV host. Yes, he can cut it, splendidly, as an actor on the small screen (whether it be on the BBC hit The Wrong Mans, or latterly Mammals on Amazon Prime). But there’s something about the oxygen of a theatre that sees his particular human chemistry achieve its combustible, effervescent, blazing best. We expect him to work magic. He mustn’t disappoint.

The trick will be whether he can confirm why so many of us fell for his super-sized charms in the first place but also show us something different, ram home the point about his talent and wow-factor. We’ve seen him be the showman – the cheekiest guy in the room in The History Boys, unforgettable as he impersonated a habitué of a brothel in a highly eccentric French language lesson. We’ve seen him pratfall over an armchair, and catch a lobbed peanut in his gob, as the swaggering, increasingly frayed Francis – a farceur extraordinaire in Richard Bean’s rewrite of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters.

But older, and expected to be wiser, braggart behaviour and irrepressible energy will need to cede ground to some evident maturity. He mustn’t be upstaged by our residual idea of James Corden; or at least he must supplant that. It sounds, on paper (and critics are being strictly kept away until the opening night) as if The Constituent ticks the right boxes: a new play by a first-rate writer (Penhall gave us the modern classic about race and mental health, Blue/Orange) on the serious topical theme of the safety of politicians.

Claws out: James Corden in Cats
Claws out: James Corden in Cats

Corden plays Alec, an ex-service-man “in crisis”, visiting his constituency MP. Can he win us over with a light-hearted air, then turn the mood darker? That’s clearly in his gifts. And we’ve seen, not least in Gavin & Stacey, and his lovable, vulnerable Smithy, that he can move us suddenly with heart-on-sleeve emotions. When Corden smiles, the world lights up; when he crumbles, you feel it too.

Still, at 45, this is crunch time; is he heading up there with the stage greats, the Simon Russell Beales and other unconventional leading men? Or is he the class clown who got lucky, saved by school drama in High Wycombe, landing a bit part in Martin Guerre in the West End in 1996, then never looking back but perhaps boxing himself in as the adorable (or not so adorable) funnyman? Can he bust out of that, take us with him, shed assumptions? If he succeeds, a gripping new chapter in his career will begin.

The Constituent runs at the Old Vic to August 10;