The Constituent at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Constituent Reviews Round-up

Reviews are coming in from London theatre critics for new play The Constituent at The Old Vic starring James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin.

This world premiere production is written by Joe Penhall (Blue/OrangeSunny Afternoon) and directed by The Old Vic’s artistic director Matthew Warchus (Matilda The Musical), and is billed as a volatile new play that deconstructs the conflict between public service and personal safety.

The show stars Anna Maxwell Martin (Motherland, Line of Duty) as a hard-working opposition backbencher whose ideals of public office are tested by the demands of a man in crisis, played by James Corden (The Late Show, Gavin & Stacey), and further challenged by her parliamentary protection officer, played by Zachary Hart (An Enemy of the People, The Witcher).

The cast also includes understudies Seán Donegan, Zara Tomkinson and George Evans.

Joining Matthew Warchus in the creative team are: Rob Howell – Set & Costume; Hugh Vanstone – Lighting; Simon Baker & Jay Jones – Sound; Charlie Hughes D’Aeth – Voice; Penny Dyer – Dialect; Terry King – Fights; Oscar Toeman – Associate Director; Bec Chippendale – Associate Set; Megan Rouse – Associate Set; Lucy Gaiger – Associate Costume; Sam Waddington – Associate Lighting; Campbell Young Associates – Hair, Wigs & Make-Up; and Kate Margretts – Props Supervisor.

Read reviews from the Guardian, Times and more, with further reviews to be added.

The Constituent is playing at The Old Vic until 10 August 2024.

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The Constituent reviews

The Guardian

"Timely Joe Penhall political drama makes the specific universal"

"Anna Maxwell Martin excels as a good MP, while James Corden’s ex-soldier shows he can be dark as well as funny"

"... Joe Penhall’s drama is a very different animal from the quintessential political play, with no cynicism, spin or party politics, none of the brash polemics of David Hare nor the wide-ranging scope of James Graham."

"Played straight through at 90 minutes and resolutely focused on local politics, it becomes universal by being so specific. It could be a play of the last 14 years, every character bearing the brunt of a system that is broken, under-resourced and failing the nation. Alec responds to this with impotent anger, Monica with empathy, for good or bad."

"Maxwell Martin is subtly brilliant, her character’s body language changing, coiled in on herself as Alec becomes more intimidating, her voice cracking even as she hides her fear to her child on the phone."

"In the end, it is not the play you imagine it to be, with no binary equation of victim/villain. Each of these characters is a victim of the system, hanging on, just – even Hart’s comical protection officer, whose outburst about his ground-down rights contains a sting."

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian
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i News

"Splendid – James Corden has been away too long"

"His comic genius is the highlight of this slick and vital drama"

"... he’s [James Corden's] back and doing what he does so splendidly, displaying that impeccable comic timing in both word and gesture. He’s paired here with another supreme comic actor, Anna Maxwell Martin"

"Yet Joe Penhall’s new drama delights in wrongfooting us, in subverting the expectations he so carefully crafts."

"We settle back, more than happy to watch Corden and Maxwell Martin do what they do so splendidly, when matters take a sudden turn for the darker."

"Penhall and director Matthew Warchus present a highly slick, possibly too highly slick, 90 minutes, in a traverse playing space created by the addition of an imposing block of onstage seating. The script begs for the addition of a little judicious depth and breadth, to flesh out crucial backstories more convincingly."

Fiona Mountford, i News
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Daily Mail

"Hair-triggered or hilarious? You decide, but James Corden's magical performance in The Constituent is worth more than an egg-yolk omelette in a New York restaurant"

"The magic of Corden’s performance is that it is, in part, that of the comedian once unambiguously loved in Gavin And Stacey on TV. But he also taps into memories of the murdered MPs David Amess and Jo Cox."

"Joe Penhall’s excellent script toys subtly with paranoid expectations — including over the security camera Alec fits in Monica’s office at the start. It’s a thoroughly researched piece of work, confidently covering the subjects of family law, military regulations, psycho-pharmaceutical preparations and the diverse actions of shotgun cartridges."

"Maxwell Martin is no less impressive. Bringing to bear her own reputation as the frazzled mum in the BBC’s Motherland, she protects herself from Alec with the prophylaxis of folded arms and a cold professional smile. She nails the bottomless condescension of an Yvette Cooper, but gradually comes to understand that Alec needs not so much to be helped, as to be heard."

Patrick Marmion, Daily Mail
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The Financial Times

"James Corden stars in a riveting and timely political drama"

"Joe Penhall’s tense play reminds us that MPs conduct their work in a hostile environment"

"Penhall combines an intelligent exploration of the limits of agency with a stark assessment of the frayed social contract in today’s fractious Britain."

"Matthew Warchus’s tense, focused production plays out on a narrow set (by Rob Howell), with the audience either side, emphasising both our involvement and, for those in public office, that there is nowhere to hide. Corden and Maxwell Martin are excellent: he starts all bounce and bluster, she all quiet reserve, but they deepen into more complex characters. Zachary Hart, as DC Mellor, has less to work with, but he is funny while representing a widespread, blunter attitude to problem-solving."

Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times
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The Telegraph

"James Corden impresses as a sobbing emblem of Broken Britain"

"Corden reintroduces himself as a dialled-down funnyman and it’s good to have him back on the British stage"

"Penhall has form in smart, compact explorations of psychological and societal pressure, and damaged males - witness Blue /Orange, his hit play about mental health and racial discrimination. Some of the material here achieves a teasing ambivalence - is Alec more sinned against than sinning, driven to extremes by being punished for his protective instincts?"

"Penhall’s script, tartly directed by Matthew Warchus so that the audience sits, democratically but overbearingly, on either side of the narrow stage – nicely handles the blend of comedy and darkening aggro."

"... Corden reintroduces himself as a dialled-down funnyman, all fixed intensity and hunched affability, then moves across 90 minutes to reveal a more bellicose side to the blustering persona, before showing us a sobbing emblem of broken Britain, alienated from the system."

"Maxwell Martin delivers a sympathetic if sketchy evocation of a conviction politician and harassed mother torn between supporting strangers and safeguarding her family: clipped, legalistic, jittery, concerned."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
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"Starring James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin, Joe Penhall’s drama about a backbench MP starts strong and loses its way"

"Speaking in long, fast, slightly syntactically askew sentences, Corden is both amusing and unsettling as Alec, a plain-speaking man with a core of likeability who has nonetheless become palpably unmoored from reality, whose anger and and unpredictability make it abundantly apparent why he’s lost his family. And Maxwell Martin is terrific as Monica (who is also tremendously written by Penhall). She is, quite clearly, a deeply caring person who wants to do right by her community and is prepared to put in the hard yards when it comes to her job."

"... it’s not hard to see ‘The Constituent’ as a descendent of Penhall’s most famous play ‘Blue/Orange’, which explored a white psychiatrist’s responsibility towards a vulnerable Black patient. The jobs, ethnicities and specific vulnerabilities have changed. But both plays are thoughtful, probing dramas about damaged masculinity and the morality of British institutions."

"Where ‘The Constituent’ unfortunately goes off the rails is in the introduction of a third character."

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut
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The Observer

"James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin struggle for urgency in Joe Penhall’s drama about a threatened female MP"

"... despite the urgent core, Matthew Warchus’s production only pads across the stage. Drama is signalled between scenes by blasts of the Smiths and Billy Bragg but is more declared than evident. The dialogue is heavy with explanation and the action slowed by overload"

"Maxwell Martin has an exceptional ability of gathering the audience (here seated confrontationally in two blocks facing each other across the stage) to her, but her meticulous tact could do with more grit and brio. Strolling on in big shorts, pencil behind ear (were he to whistle, he would be the archetypal British workman), Corden begins apparently complacent, moves through disturbance and threat, ends with a terrible unravelling. This is a breakthrough for him: it shows what a versatile actor he is."

Susannah Clapp, The Observer
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The Stage

"Plenty to chew on"

"Anna Maxwell Martin and James Corden star in a vivid state-of-the-nation snapshot from Joe Penhall"

"Talk about timing. In the last days before a general election, here’s Joe Penhall’s three-hander about government, community, ethics and responsibility, to remind us what’s at stake and just how much of a mess we’re currently in. Matthew Warchus’ crisp production features a couple of heavyweight stars returning to the stage – Anna Maxwell Martin and James Corden – and Penhall’s dialogue is packed with zap and zing. But the play is at once too narrow and too broad: it tackles overarching themes of the right’s bogeys ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’, as well as political alienation, the crisis in mental-health care and divisions of wealth, class and gender. Yet it’s a little airless, the issues funnelled through over-convenient individual circumstances in neat sound bites and discussed in a static setting that quickly begins to feel a touch contrived. Still, there’s plenty to chew on here, and the performances are pretty much faultless."

Sam Marlowe, The Stage
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The Independent

"James Corden proves himself as a truly great actor in flawed political play"

"‘Motherland’ star Anna Maxwell Martin and James Corden have to battle with starchy direction and a clunky script in Joe Penhall’s new play about the threats facing MPs"

"Scenes play out in zinging back-and-forths between Corden and Maxwell Martin, two sides of an argument rather than two fully rounded characters – and not just one argument either, but many and scattershot"

"Corden and Maxwell Martin – plus an enjoyably annoying Zachary Hart as a police officer – really do their best to turn the characters into something more real than the lumpy script allows. Maxwell Martin brings such a sense of ease to her performance, and so much detail, the way she code switches, dropping hard consonants when she’s talking to Alec and being all posh MP when talking to the policeman. And James Corden really is a great stage actor."

"You want it to settle, to dig more deeply, rather than throw the net more widely. You want the dialogue to flow like these are real people, not ciphers being swallowed up by structure. It doesn’t help that starchy direction by Matthew Warchus puts all the focus on the script."

Tim Bano, The Independent
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The Evening Standard

"James Corden makes a strong return to the London stage in political drama"

"Corden gets a chance to flex different theatrical muscles in Joe Penhall’s play while Anna Maxwell Martin is as reliable as ever"

"It’s not hard to see why James Corden might have opted to make his return to the London stage after 12 years in a topical play by Joe Penhall. The Constituent offers him the chance to flex a different set of theatrical muscles. It’s a long way from the farce of One Man, Two Guvnors. But the surprisingly thin play squanders both its timely subject matter and the talents of the cast."

"Corden does a strong job, capturing the character’s intensity and increasing desperation. He makes the most of the material. As does the always reliable Martin, who convinces in the role of a politician trying to retain her capacity for empathy while being councilled to keep people at arm's length for the sake of her safety."

"It touches on several potentially interesting themes, on the way men struggle to adjust to life outside the military, the mechanics of restorative justice and the particular venom faced by women in the public eye, but in the most dramatically undynamic of ways."

Natasha Tripney, The Evening Standard
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The Times

"Lack of fireworks in James Corden’s return to stage"

"Joe Penhall’s new play has box office draw but the storyline fails to hit the heights"

"The timing couldn’t have been better. Joe Penhall’s new play arrives just at the moment when the relationship between members of parliament and the people they represent is uppermost in our minds. And the fact that James Corden is making his long overdue return to the London stage, playing a troubled army veteran alongside Line of Duty’s Anna Maxwell Martin as a hard-working backbencher, will surely help at the box office as well. That said, this turns out to be a surprisingly tepid study of a vulnerable man whose life has lost its moorings."

"Part of the problem here is that Corden, a likeable enough presence, can’t bring enough depth to Alec’s sense of anguish. Instead, his tone runs all the way from aggrieved to mildly aggrieved."

"By the time Penhall delivers a final twist in the plot much of the tension had already seeped out of the auditorium."

Clive Davis, The Times
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"James Corden Impresses in Timely but Contrived Political Play"

"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."

"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."

David Benedict, Variety
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The Constituent

Old Vic, London

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📷 Main photo: The Constituent at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

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