Hair-triggered or hilarious? You decide, but James Corden’s magical performance in The Constituent is worth more than an egg salad in a New York restaurant, writes PATRICK MARMION

In The Constituent, James Corden plays Alec, a British Army veteran who turned to installing security alarms after serving in Afghanistan.  This brings him to the practice of ex-schoolmate, now MP, Monica, played by Anna Maxwell Martin
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The Constituent

Old Vic Theatre, London

Judgement:

After his confrontation over egg salad at a fancy New York restaurant, James Corden has built himself a bit of a reputation.

But whether you find this sturdy man from Uxbridge exciting or hilarious, he manages to show all this and much more in a surprising and moving return to the stage of the Old Vic in London, opposite Anna Maxwell Martin as the stressed ‘opposition’ -member of parliament.

Corden plays Alec, a British Army veteran who, after serving in Afghanistan, turns to installing security alarms. This brings him to the practice of ex-schoolmate, now MP, Monica (Maxwell Martin).

As they get to talking, he hopes she can help him in the custody battle for his children, which is currently being settled in family court.

She refuses to take sides, and when he returns with a box of live ammunition, she warns him “there are certain things I can’t help you with… one of them is firearms.”

In short, his life is in free fall.

The magic of Corden’s performance is that it is partly that of the comedian once unequivocally beloved on TV’s Gavin And Stacey. But he also draws on memories of murdered MPs David Amess and Jo Cox.

Joe Penhall’s excellent script subtly plays with paranoid expectations – including about the security camera. Alec fits into Monica’s office at first.

It is a thoroughly researched piece of work, which confidently addresses the subjects of family law, military regulations, psychopharmaceutical preparations, and the various actions of shotgun cartridges.

Corden himself is a bit manic, as if he’s in a hurry to leave – without ever taking any real steps to do so. His voice is a little too loud. His diction is a little too fast. Each speech is a surrogate cry for help, packaged in the form of a Talk Radio phone-in rant.

But every now and then there are great jokes that reconnect with his gift for comedic timing. “My wife is very formidable,” he says, “like Lady Macbeth on a bender.”

Maxwell Martin is no less impressive. Bringing up her own reputation as the frustrated mother in BBC’s Motherland, she protects herself from Alec with the prophylaxis of folded arms and a cold, professional smile.

She has the bottomless condescension of a Yvette Cooper, but gradually comes to realize that Alec doesn’t need to be helped so much as he needs to be heard.

There are flaws in Matthew Warchus’ trademark slick production, which frames the audience on either side of the stage, making it clear that this is now a story about us.

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One is that the well-meaning Zachary Hart, as Monica’s police officer, is played for laughs as a silly Brummie.

Another is that we are subjected to Billy Bragg’s whining about social justice during a scene change.

But the acting and writing are still great, reminding us that some of our problems, as human beings, can only be solved through compassion, not politics.

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