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James Corden and Anna Maxwell Martin are excellent

James Corden is a good actor. It may be irritating to say that given his “divisive” public persona. But the man’s stage history is undeniable. He made his theater debut in the original production of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ and conquered the world in his personal vehicle ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’. And if he’s unlikely to be able to match the success of the last two, he does it again with Joe Penhall’s new play, “The Constituent.”

In his most serious role to date, Corden plays Alec, a worn-out Afghan war veteran struggling with the disintegration of the voluntarily normal life he built for himself after leaving the military. He settled down with a wife, children and a dog. But everything went to hell thanks to his erratic and paranoid behavior. He is now turning to family courts in an effort to regain access to his children, although it is unclear whether his children want this.

Alec’s great hope is Monica (Anna Maxwell Martin), his local parliamentary worker, a diligent Labor legislator with whom he went to primary school and knows his mother. He works as an electrician and they reconnect when he installs a new security system for her, convincing himself along the way that she might hold the key to restabilizing her life.

Speaking in long, rapid-fire, slightly syntactically twisted sentences, Corden is both funny and unsettling as Alec, an outspoken man with a core of sympathy who has nevertheless become palpably disengaged from reality, whose anger and unpredictability make all too evident. why is he lost his family.

And Maxwell Martin is fantastic as Monica (who is also tremendously written by Penhall). She is clearly a deeply caring person who wants to do right by her community and is willing to go to great lengths when it comes to her work. It’s not a flashy ministerial job for her: for much of ‘The Constituent’ she’s dealing (at enormous length) with the fallout from the firing of the local lollipop lady. She also really wants to help Alec, even when his behavior starts to become palpably harassing.

And yet she is no saint, not just an ordinary lady doing her best: she has the mind of a lawyer and often interrupts Alec with pedantic technical and legal observations, or offers long and complex explanations for things that everyone else wishes were simple. She cares, but she has a kind of technocratic distance that bothers Alec, who probably just wants a hug and to be told everything will be okay.

Arranged in a tight traverse, with scenes outlined by increasingly mangled fragments of The Smiths’ ‘Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me’, it’s not difficult to see ‘The Constituent’ as a descendant of Penhall’s most famous work, ‘ Blue/Orange’. ‘, which explored the responsibility of a white psychiatrist towards a vulnerable black patient. 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. At first, Mellor, Zachary Hart’s paranoid Brummie police officer, seems like a reasonable addition to the story: Monica is increasingly concerned about Alec’s obsessive behavior, but he doesn’t qualify for proper ministerial protection. But eventually Mellor’s ridiculous behavior ruins the entire play and unbalances the carefully wrought clash between Monica and Alec. Even when Mellor is out of the equation, Matthew Warchus’s hitherto finely balanced production feels trivialized and diminished. Penhall perhaps makes a couple of valid observations about the British police. But it actually seems like he wasn’t sure where to take the story, so he decided to throw Mellor as a very crude curveball.

It’s a decent piece and an opening in the middle of a general election campaign, it’s very timely, and Corden and (especially) Maxwell Martin are great. It’s not the era-defining blockbuster that Corden’s two previous theatrical outings were. But he proves that he is an actor of range and substance, while there simply isn’t a world in which 90 minutes in the company of Anna Maxwell Martin is a bad thing.

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