Recent review

“The Constituent” at the Old Vic

Neil Dowden on the South Bank
1 July 2024

Joe Penhall’s absorbing new play The Constituent is a pertinent dramatization of the thorny dilemma of MPs’ public service versus their personal safety – given an added resonance with a general election imminent. It’s been a hot topic in recent years with the alarming rise of online threats against MPs and attacks on their offices, in the wake of the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess. There has been much discussion about security measures MPs should take and even whether they should still see constituents face-to-face in surgeries. Here, Penhall examines the ambivalent relationship between a conscientious backbench opposition MP and a former serviceman in their constituency whose life is in crisis and who demands her help.

 

James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan. 

 

Monica (her party is unnamed) is a hard-working, model constituency MP, in the job not for her own political ambition but to serve the interests of her community – we hear her talking on the phone about bringing back a lollipop lady after a road accident near a local school. Taking advice, she has a panic alarm installed in her office by Alec, now in the security business after leaving the army where he served in Afghanistan. Their conversation turns cordial after it turns out they were at primary school together and that their mothers know each other.

Alec gives Monica advice on repelling an assailant, while she is sympathetic towards his domestic plight as he attempts to gain custody – or even access – to his young children after his wife has left him and is now living with another man in their family home. But the relationship chills as it emerges that Alec – suffering from PTSD – has threatened his wife and then becomes intimidatingly angry with Monica for not supporting his campaign for changing legislation in favour of fathers.

Parliamentary protection officer Mellor gives Monica a stab vest and advises her to cut all contact with Alec – ironically the man who installed her security system is now a threat – while she is reluctant to do that as she believes in her duty towards constituents. But all changes when her surgery is trashed.

The Constituent begins with some satirical comedy, then takes a serious dramatic turn, with a thriller-type suspense. Penhall cleverly sets up expectations that aren’t necessarily fulfilled, and ensures that our sympathies for the characters fluctuate. The play doesn’t quite make the most of the rich potential of its scenario. The tense, engrossing scenes between Monica and Alec are somewhat diluted by the lighter presence of Mellor who seems more of a caricature and is perhaps even redundant.

This is Penhall’s first play since 2018’s Mood Music which also dealt with toxic masculinity, in that case in the music business (and likewise premiered at the Old Vic). With its mental health themes, The Constituent is reminiscent of his 2000 award-winning psychodrama Blue/Orange. Despite having an MP as a major character, it doesn’t raise matters of political ideology in the way that the work of James Graham and Mike Bartlett often does. But the play is refreshingly uncynical about the positive role that politicians can play in our democracy.

Matthew Warchus’s traverse staging on a raised platform puts the protagonists under close attention, although there is rather a lot of (albeit brief) changing of furniture and props between the shortish scenes that reduces the tension in the 90-minute, straight-through production. In Rob Howell’s design, the formal but open-access constituency surgery undergoes a makeover after it is vandalized.

The show is boosted by two impressive central performances. In his first stage appearance for over a decade since his tour de force star turn in One Man, Two Guvnors, James Corden extends his range by adding real dramatic depth to his usually amiable comedic persona as Alec. He starts off in this vein, but soon exudes a genuine menace and unpredictable edge as a desperate man damaged by his brutal experiences in war who has lost faith in the system and struggles to adapt to civilian life. Anna Maxwell Martin also excels as the compassionate, practical Monica who believes in making a difference but whose receptive listening stance is challenged by the danger of male violence.

And Zachary Hart is entertaining as policeman Mellor whose humorous comments conceal a nasty streak that emerges later in a play that asks questions about how we enforce law and order while allowing citizens to have close contact with their representatives.