Review: The Constituent – Old Vic

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Iron Fist or Helping Hand?

Joe Penhall’s The Constituent is an excellent piece of theatre. It isn’t dragged out for the sake of adding minutes on but economically gets to the core of what a back-bench MP does, tries to do and has to tolerate, while also telling the story of a disgruntled and misunderstood constituent, writes Michael Holland.

This play is performed with the real backdrop of MPs being murdered in recent years just for doing the job they were elected to do in their communities, plus a trend of online vitriol from trolls and psychopaths hiding behind fake identities as they threaten and abuse those in politics, forcing some into needing 24/7 security.

The Constituent opens with Morrissey singing about ‘No hope, no harm just another false alarm’ and Monica(Anna Maxwell Martin) trying to sort out her family life as her surgery ends at the end of a long day. There is only the electrician to deal with, Alec(James Corden), who has just installed hi-tec security in her constituency office in London.

They went to junior school together and their parents are friends, though she hardly remembers this. She refuses his offers of taking cash for some of the work that she wouldn’t have to declare, or having a free panic button and rape alarm, explaining that Parliament rules will not allow such things. Monica talks of cutbacks and people losing jobs; about protests against a supermarket and a hit-and-run incident she is dealing with; all local issues, though we also hear of nationwide problems like waiting in A&E for hours and a lack of policing.

Alec tells Monica he is a war veteran who worked in intelligence in Afghanistan, who saw violence against innocent Afghans as well as POWs, and was himself beaten and abused by higher ranks for ‘whistle-blowing’. Returning to the UK, probably with some form of PTSD, his marriage failed and he was now struggling with a tough divorce and not seeing his children – a problem he would like her to solve.

The Constituent had begun quite light-heartedly, with Corden allowed some easy jokes that we know him for, but the mood soon darkens over several, quick time changes. Looking for a more helpful response from his MP he barks ‘Society is kept together by lollipop ladies and dogs!’

An MP cannot pick sides in a divorce so her refusal to ‘ask questions in the house’ angers Alec. She explains that his shouting is seen as violent behaviour, while he counters with the violence that he has suffered, both mentally – at home – and physically – at war.

As The Constituent reaches the apex of many shouting matches there is a feeling of impending horror and its rapid ride downhill culminates in an attack on her office while she is sleeping upstairs. There is only one suspect.

A Protection Officer (Zachary Hart) is called in to provide security and advice, which is to wear a stab vest and have Alec arrested, although she never actually saw Alec smash up her workplace and he says it was not him. The audience is caught between a ‘did he or didn’t he?’ quandary. Needless to say, Alec’s situation worsens while Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars tells us, ‘I kept the faith, and I kept voting. Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand’.

There is no single theme here, Penhall balances out the mundane but crucial work of an MP with our own daily reality of headline-grabbing soundbites from those on the front benches. And there is no right or wrong answer to the problems within this play topped and tailed by two iconic songs from the 80s. Should politicians – or the Government – be the ‘iron fist’ or the ‘helping hand’?

The Constituent does not end well but – conversely – it does end well with the house rising to its feet to acknowledge tremendous performances.

The Old Vic, The Cut, SE1 until August 10th. Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm; Thur & Sat matinees 2.30pm. Admission: £15 – £180.



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