The Constituent

Joe Penhall
Old Vic Theatre

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Anna Maxwell Martin and James Corden Credit: Manuel Harlan
James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin Credit: Manuel Harlan
James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin Credit: Manuel Harlan
James Corden, Zachary Hart and Anna Maxwell Martin Credit: Manuel Harlan
Anna Maxwell Martin and Zachary Hart Credit: Manuel Harlan
Zachary Hart and James Corden Credit: Manuel Harlan

“What’s the glue holding it all together? Lollipop people and dogs…” Alec asks Monica, his local MP. For a constituent, he is very familiar. Joe Penhall, of Blue/Orange fame, has written a timely state of the nation play, a serious attack leavened with some punchy satirical and laugh-out-loud comic lines. Only a few weeks before the general election… a cry from the heart.

Only the other day, MP Stella Creasy’s Walthamstow office was vandalised. Trolls make death threats. MPs have been murdered. They need security detail. How far has British political life and society fallen. Voluble, volatile, vindictive and vulnerable. As is the world these days. Penhall ticks all the boxes of our government’s (and social services) failures.

A former serviceman, whose job ironically was de-escalation, critical of how we abandoned forty million people to the Taliban, Alec has come to install security in Monica’s office. Turns out they went to the same primary school and their mothers knew each other. But he has problems, not least his PTSD mental state. He’s labelled already. All he wants is a simple, boring life. He put his life on the line for his country and has “come back to a pile of shit”.

His wife has chucked him out, she has a new partner, an undercover cop who likes firearms, and social services are involved. He can’t see his children. His story has a touch of Families Need Fathers. So, he feels unfairly targeted, and the MP makes assumptions that turn out not to be true.

It’s all a bit loaded, especially when Mellor, parliamentary protection officer, comes into the picture with a stab vest for her and advice that is dubious and bigoted. She is scared, falls down the stairs in her wrecked office, her photo lands in the papers. She spoke to a reporter “off the record”, a ministerial faux pas. How did it get there? Did Mellor sell it to make up his salary? Everyone on the make, eh… How a situation quickly gets out of hand…

The situation escalates for Alec, who bops Mellor on the nose, and precipitates his own downfall. Mellor beats him up—and it’s downhill from there. Alec gets a six-month sentence, unable to prove his innocence, loses everything, is made homeless. The final scene, him drenched and bedraggled in Monica’s new office, is poignant and pitiful. How will she live with her guilt? Try and get him on the council housing list…

Just about everything gets a kicking by Penhall—where we are right now, injustices piling up and MPs not equipped to deal with it, protocol and all that, limits on their responsibilities. And, of course, MPs have families, too. Both Alec and Monica are victims. Mellor exacerbates the situation.

Ninety minutes (no interval) whizz by, beautifully written, The Constituent could be a manifesto. Matthew Warchus directs with sympathy if slack pace (though that will tighten over the run) on Rob Howell’s spare set, with audience stacked either side.

The actors are superlative, as one expects from Anna Maxwell Martin (Motherland), who is good at nervy characters, and James Corden (One Man, Two Guvnors; The History Boys) has been too long away from the London stage.

He proves himself yet again. A serious role, inflected with some bitter humour, an articulate Alec is made for him and he for Alec. His timing is a joy to observe. A game of verbal table tennis, he and an understated Maxwell Martin (perfect as the MP keeping it together as a professional, not wanting the personal to intrude) are evenly matched.

Zachary Hart as the security officer brings comic relief (his accent helps) until it turns nasty and his policeman’s mulishness takes over. Lies, lies and more lies. The world is not for the little people. Penhall heaps Pelion on Ossa, but where are the gods to set this corrupt and indifferent world to rights?

Where is the mercy and compassion Monica talks about? Her hands may be tied, though she believed in circumstantial evidence—his fingerprints all over the office. They would be, he installed he security… And unwittingly condemned a troubled man, come to her for help.

Prejudice, lack of empathy, is she just going through the motions? Jumping to conclusions, judging people too soon, we all do that. Penhall wrong-foots us, and her, in his swerve from the obvious. His writing flows on a wave of impassioned social urgency. A small voice in the global and national scheme of things, at least he is making himself heard.

“One day there won’t be any decent people left, it’ll just be all the narcissists and thrill-seekers…” Monica thinks she is fighting for democracy; Alec did fight for ‘democracy’ in Afghanistan, or so he was led to believe.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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