Corden wins over most critics with stage return

James Corden
Corden's character has split critics with some calling it "complex and moving" while other say it is "too flat" [Manuel Harlan]

In 2011, James Corden hit the West End with the farcical comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, and later won a Tony Award for best actor following its Broadway transfer.

More than a decade later, he's back in London, this time starring alongside Anna Maxwell Martin in Joe Penhall’s political drama, The Constituent.

The Gavin and Stacey star's return to the stage has been met with generally positive reviews from the critics - although some were more enthusiastic than others.

The Independent called Corden a "truly great actor in flawed political play", but WhatsOnStage said his performance lacked subtlety and that the actor was "painting with broad, blunt colours".

The play sees Corden play Alec, a troubled ex-soldier who the audience meets fitting a security system in the office of backbench MP Monica (Maxwell Martin).

Over the course of 90 minutes, Corden's character spirals - becoming increasingly desperate and relying more heavily on the support of his local MP to help him through a messy divorce and the family courts.

In a three-star review, The Independent's Tim Bano described Corden as a "great stage actor" and praised his "beautifully timed comic delivery".

"His voice [is] a permanently high-pitched barrage of speech, lots of wittering, peppered with cutting political comments about the state of the nation," Bano wrote.

"By the final scenes, he gets to do the other end of the emotional spectrum, with a poignant breakdown that almost allows the play to land what it’s trying to say."

James Corden and Anna Maxwell-Martin
The play centres on a face-off between an MP and a constituent infuriated by a system that seems stacked against him [Manuel Harlan]

Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph said Corden "reintroduces himself as a dialled-down funnyman".

His three-star review said the actor eventually reveals a more "bellicose side to the blustering persona, before showing us a sobbing emblem of broken Britain".

The Evening Standard's Natasha Tripney agreed and said Corden makes a "strong return", and in her three-star review added that he "captures the character’s intensity and increasing desperation".

However, Clive Davis of the Times awarded the show just two stars, saying there was "a lack of fireworks" to Corden's return as he struggles to "bring enough depth to his character's sense of anguish".

According to Time Out's Andrzej Lukowski, Corden is "both amusing and unsettling as Alec".

"It’s a decent play and opening in the middle of a general election campaign, it’s nothing if not timely, and Corden and (especially) Maxwell Martin are great," Lukowski said.

"It’s not the era-defining blockbuster Corden’s two previous stage outings were. But it proves he’s an actor of range and substance."

The problem for many of the critics was the play's storyline.

Davis described the play as a "surprisingly tepid study of a vulnerable man whose life has lost its moorings", adding that Corden's plot line "doesn’t rise far above a run-of-the-mill episode of a soap".

Meanwhile Cavendish said his key reservation was "given how militant ideologues now swirl around our MPs, rogue fathers seem a soft target".

"The evening inclines to slightness as well as concision and constituent plot-elements also don’t entirely stack up."

A three-star review from Alun Hood of WhatsOnStage added that the content of the play "feels too much for a 90-minute piece".

"Too often when the play is becoming really compulsive, it’s cut off by a blast of ear-splitting rock music and an inexplicably lengthy blackout.

"The cumulative effect becomes more frustration than fascination."

The review praised Motherland actress Maxwell-Martin as someone who "movingly captures Monica’s innate goodness but also her steeliness".

"She’s kind and compassionate but no pushover [...] and the sense of a decent human pushed to their very limit is powerfully felt."

Sam Marlowe of The Stage was lukewarm on the production, also awarding it three stars.

"It’s a little airless," she wrote, "the issues funnelled through over-convenient individual circumstances in neat sound bites and discussed in a static setting that quickly begins to feel a touch contrived.

"Still, there’s plenty to chew on here, and the performances are pretty much faultless."

Anna Maxwell-Martin
The 47-year-old actress is best known for her roles in Line of Duty and Motherland [Manuel Harlan]

The Guardian's Arifa Akbar awarded the show four stars, calling the Line of Duty actress's performance "subtly brilliant".

She said Corden's character was "complex" and "moving", adding the actor "steers clear of ever playing him as a flatly unhinged villain".

Akbar praised the overall show and said there is "no binary equation of victim/villain".

According to Aliya Al-Hassan of Broadway World, the play "is more than a simple tale of good versus bad; it is a non-partisan and poignant of depiction of a broken system, where individuals can so easily get lost".

Her three-star review also praised the lead actors and said they "have excellent chemistry and their shifting relationship is very believable".

But City AM's Adam Bloodworth said: "Joe Penhall’s script is full of jokes that don’t land and the set up is clunky and hard to believe.

"The Constituent, opening the week prior to the general election, only adds to our collective political confusion and fatigue rather than cutting through it."

The Constituent is playing at the Old Vic until 10 August.