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‘The Constituent’ – timely drama about the politicians who believe in service and discover difficult voters  

‘The Constituent’ – timely drama about the politicians who believe in service and discover difficult voters  

Personal reflections on this production at The Old Vic in London by Sudha Bhuchar…  

JAMES CORDEN’S long awaited return to the stage as an ex-serviceman, Alec, in ‘The Constituent’ is a triumph and makes for a hugely enjoyable evening that is a catalyst for much conversation afterwards – over a glass of prosecco for me, and a black coffee for my companion, Carl Miller. He’s on a strict 5/2 regime and I always seem to see him on a day when he’s only imbibing 500 calories! Maybe his sobriety made his musings on the play deeper and expressed more succinctly than me.  I’ve endeavoured to integrate them here as we mostly agreed. 

Coming so close to a General Election, and in the wake of the tragic murders of MPs Jo Cox and Sir David Amess, the writer Joe Penhall expresses how he wanted to examine why people still want to do this job when it was becoming so obviously dangerous. It is directed by Matthew Warchus (‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Matilda The Musical’). 

Alec (James Corden)

Having attended the former PM, Theresa May’s talk this week at the Wimbledon Bookfest, I was struck by her relating how she declared to her parents as a young child that she wanted to be an MP when she grew up ‘to be of service’.  She went onto say that many of her (male) colleagues did not see the role as one of responsibility but rather one of privilege that was gifted to them to exploit. 

James’s co-star’s character, Monica, a MP played by the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin is of the Theresa May ilk, in that she sees it as her job and passion to be accessible to all her constituents, no matter who they are.  

The play opens with Monica on the phone to one of her children, trying to coach him/her to de-escalate a domestic situation, to be ‘diplomatic’ rather than fire accusations you can’t prove. This proves to be a metaphor for the whole play.  

When Alec enters her office to install security systems, he reminds Monica that they know each other from school, where one of their mums was a teaching assistant and the other in ‘catering’ (dinner lady I guessed). Monica discovers he’s an ex-serviceman recently back from Afghanistan who’d swapped the “believers for a retriever” but his dream for a quiet life had been shattered with his wife having left him for “an undercover copper from Kent. He’s moved his dog in while ours ran away”. Alec’s dog represented family and safety, both of which he has lost and is now in a battle to have access to his children. 

Monica (Anna Maxwell Martin)

In a series of encounters, Alec tries to enlist Monica to help him, and other fathers like him, and the situation escalates. In one scene he offers her a personal alarm, so she feels safe. “I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine”. Soon he is essentially ‘stalking’ her. 

But this is not a predictable story of a serviceman with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) becoming violent on his return home, it’s much more complex than that.  

As Alec and Monica spar, Zachary Hart enters as Mellor, a cop, brought in to ‘de-escalate’ the situation by employing the mantra he learnt from his father to “stick one on the jaw where all the nerve endings are”. In other words, deal with bullies by ending it before it starts. Or at least wear a bullet proof vest when meeting constituents. 
There are lots of twists and turns on this journey with admirable performances from all three actors. Alec is the more complex of the trio and Corden rises to the challenge of this layered character study with a nuanced, dark, poignant and funny portrayal. There are many memorable moments, and the quick-fire dialogue made the audience laugh out loud with audacious truths being voiced out loud. 

Mellor (Zachary Hart)

“I want to murder him with my bare hands” Alec says about the rival for his wife’s affections. When Monica admonishes him to be careful, as she would have to report him, he retorts: “I was a soldier. That’s how we talk”. 

“Men can’t use provocation as defence” Monica reminds him which elicits a cry from the heart from Alec.  

“I feel discriminated against. No one is having a conversation about men. I don’t trust anyone.”   

Are we really “not talking about men?”  

In this context, it felt like white cisgender* men. Is all the talking we are doing simply increasing a sense of alienation for people who were brought up learning (consciously or not) that ‘Britishness’, white ethnicity and male gender were top trumps, but that the rules of the game now seem to have changed, especially for poorer men. 

When a justice and legal system attempts to remedy historic structural wrongs – for example the emotional and physical abuse of women – does it risk being, or at least feeling unjust to some of those who have grown up under the existing system?  

Monica and Alec (Maxwell Martin & Corden)

How can Monica respond with compassion to the traumatised Alec when she feels threatened by him and there are such huge gaps in the health and care safety net?  

“I am not your punch bag. I’m a MP!” she cries out. Is false hope the only hope that we can expect from our politicians?   

The play has ambitions to be a ‘state of the nation’ play maybe. Where the specific situation is a metaphor for the state of the country. The design – in which the audience is looking both at the stage action and itself through a double-sided proscenium frame, encouraged that idea. But as a South Asian person among a mainly white first night audience, I found myself asking if these characters and situations are an adequate metaphor for ‘the nation’? Even as Alec has been in Afghanistan and his wife was a nurse in Kandahar, encounters with people from other cultures barely gets a mention.  

Apart from the abrupt musical interludes between scenes, which I didn’t need, this was a wonderful evening and the play raced along without an interval, with plenty of time to put the world to right afterwards over a drink or a meal at the many bars and restaurants nearby. Or you could stalk stage door for a glimpse of the stars or an autograph.  

For me it was a short journey back from Waterloo to SW19, in time to catch ‘Newsnight’ and the latest political misdemeanours, this time about MPs ‘betting’ against themselves or the date of the election or something. Is that really the most pressing concern as we go to the polls?  

Sudha Bhuchar
by Harry Elletson

Sudha Bhuchar is the artistic director of  Bhuchar Boulevard and tours with her one woman show, ‘Evening Conversations’ and you can see her as an actor in the BBC’s forthcoming crime drama series, ‘Virdee’ an adaptation of a Bradford set novel by AA Dhand. 

All pictures except SB ©TheOldVic/Manual Harlan

*Identified as male at birth

The Constituent by Joe Penhall, The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London SE1 8NB 
(June 13)- August 10  

See here for booking (queue system when busy)
1 hour 30 minutes 


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture