JAN MOIR: James Corden has swapped Hollywood for the Old Vic. So will playing an ex-soldier in a downward spiral revive his career?

We all know there is one word that describes James Corden. A single word that sums him up like no other.

One word that gets to the marrow of the man, that drills down to the bone, that conjures forth the distilled essence of the entertainer so many love to hate. And that word is 'can't'.

Let me repeat that. He's a bit of a can't. For once you put him on a stage or in front of a camera or a microphone, there is absolutely nothing that James can't do.

Actor, comedian, singer, writer, producer, podcast supremo, chat show host, oleaginous friend of the stars and loyal chum of Prince Harry — James moves through all these worlds with practiced ease.

James Cordon swaps hollywood to play ex-serviceman in crisis Alec in West End play The Constituent

James Cordon swaps hollywood to play ex-serviceman in crisis Alec in West End play The Constituent

Corden stars alongside award-winning actress Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Alec's local MP

Corden stars alongside award-winning actress Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Alec's local MP

He might be a polarising figure to some, with a reputation as an arrogant churl that may or may not be deserved, but he certainly knows how to oil the showbiz wheels and he can grease the cogs of celebrity and royalty like nobody else.

And he is full of surprises, too. Few could have guessed that after leaving Hollywood and the high-wattage glam of his star-packed American TV chat show, following an eight-year run that made him an international star and a millionaire many times over, that he would end up on the stage of the Old Vic theatre in London, playing a downbeat and damaged former soldier whose life is falling apart.

Yet here he is, right in front of me, dressed in cargo shorts and a hoodie, an indeterminate tattoo visible on his pale calf as he pads around with a Dustbuster in his hand and a raging hole in his soul.

Remarkably, Corden's hotly anticipated post-Hollywood gig is starring in The Constituent, a new political drama by Joe Penhall which opened in preview last Thursday night.

In this pacy, 100-minute production, he plays Alec; a soldier who served in Afghanistan who is now on Ritalin, on anti-psychotic drugs and on a downward spiral that threatens to end in tragedy.

He wants his MP to help him, but she is not sure that she can. 'You've got dead eyes, you are dead from the neck up, you work for a dead Parliament in a dead country,' he shouts, in one haunting moment.

On his last stage outing 12 years ago, Corden was a smash hit as failed skiffle-player Francis in One Man, Two Guvnors, an uproarious comedy which triumphed both in the West End and on Broadway.

Cordon with his wife Julia Carey at the 2024 Met Gala in New York

Cordon with his wife Julia Carey at the 2024 Met Gala in New York

Indeed, his friend and supporter Dame Anna Wintour, who many say was a driving force behind the show's successful transfer to New York, is in the audience.

Even in the anonymity of the dimly lit stalls Anna is unmistakable in her pink coat, precision bob and trademark sunglasses, which she only slips off when the house lights go down.

It reminds me that in the galaxy of celebrity, Corden is that most diligent of circling satellites – never far from another star.

Unlike One Man or even Gavin & Stacey – the much-loved BBC series which he co-writes and also stars in as Smithy, a self-employed builder – James Corden is not playing it for laughs this time.

Yes, there is the occasional mordant one-liner, perfectly delivered. When Alec is asked if there is a culture clash between him and his estranged wife, he nods in the affirmative. 'Yeah. She's from Lewisham, I'm from Shepherd's Bush,' he says.

The sell-out audience absolutely loved that, but for the most part the going is grim.

Perhaps that is only to be expected from a play which features a few drifting songs from Morrissey and Billy Bragg, while focusing on mental health issues and the safety of those in public life, particularly politicians.

Indeed, you have to hand it to serendipitous James, blessed with a big star's endless luck, who now finds himself centre-stage in a politically and socially charged drama which presciently launched during the general election campaign.

Not only that, but it also asks the hot-button question of the moment: how can we keep our MPs safe?

The Constituent – in which Corden is the titular constituent – just couldn't be more topical if it tried.

The day after the play opened, gender-critical Labour candidate Rosie Duffield announced she was withdrawing from hustings events because constant abuse and harassment from trolls and 'fixated individuals' have made her fear for her safety.

And Reform's Nigel Farage was assaulted by members of the public twice in the space of a few days.

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The murders of MPs Jo Cox and Sir David Amess, along with the recent resignation of MP Mike Freer over safety concerns, also inform the play, while Labour's Jess Phillips points out that 'threats of intimidation and harassment in this campaign mean that planned events are nearly impossible to go to'.

The Constituent channels this perilous zeitgeist and these very real fears through three characters.

There is opposition backbench MP Monica (Anna Maxwell Martin) who is harassed but compassionate. 'I am not your punch bag, I am a Member of Parliament,' she says. Monica is based on Jess Phillips herself, who is thanked in the programme notes.

There is also a policeman called Mellor (Zachary Hart) and of course Alec. When he was in the Army, Alec recruited spies, he 'de-escalated' hostile situations, he was a man with responsibilities who commanded respect.

Now he is a different kind of security specialist, installing an alarm system in the surgery offices of Monica, his own local MP. 'I am going to get you a personal alarm,' he tells her, bustling around the stage with a toolbox and cheery efficiency, causing a muscle memory of Smithy to waft unbidden into my uncultured brain.

Later when Alec is cresting towards an emotional eruption, I find myself disobligingly thinking, uh oh, Smithy's having a melty.

However, Corden must be commended for taking on this difficult and taxing role when he could be reclining on the feather bed of his chatty man status, interviewing the likes of David Beckham and asking Kim Kardashian about her pants on a lucrative global podcast series — and to be fair, he is doing that, too.

Yet his professional reputation and the shape of the rest of his life depends on the success or otherwise of his performance here, back on the London stage where his career began.

Few had heard of James Corden back in 2004 when he appeared in The History Boys, Sir Alan Bennett's classic play about a group of Sheffield schoolboys hoping to get into Oxbridge.

Playing Timms in both the stage and film version made Corden's name and set him on the road to television, Broadway and international success with The Late, Late Show and its Carpool Karaoke offshoot.

He seems to have made just as many enemies as friends along the way. When Alan Bennett deadpanned that his proudest contribution to entertainment history was having a 'small part in the rise and rise of James Corden' the mockery was obvious.

Corden's Carpool Karaoke series, which saw him interview and sing with A-listers (pictured with Adele) won him huge popularity

Corden's Carpool Karaoke series, which saw him interview and sing with A-listers (pictured with Adele) won him huge popularity

James Corden wells up during his final episode of The Late Late show

James Corden wells up during his final episode of The Late Late show

Rumours that Corden is 'difficult' to work with won't go away, while an infamous incident in 2022 when he was temporarily banned from a New York restaurant for being rude to a waiter didn't help.

Yet in a recent travel disruption, when his British Airways flight was diverted to Lisbon and then stuck on the tarmac for three hours, he was praised for speaking up for his fellow passengers.

Meanwhile, Sharon Osbourne and Spice Girl Mel B are among those who have been vicious in their criticism of him, but I feel that anyone who has those two dementors as enemies can't be all bad.

When his Constituent co-star Anna Maxwell Martin was asked recently about Corden's reputation, she said: 'He's just really easy. Neither of us want to make the room difficult and waste time having a nervous breakdown.

'We're worker bees. We just want to get on with it.'

So here we are, at a pivotal moment in the star-spangled life of James Corden. Can he become an all-time acting great, the kind of unconventional leading man who can make us forget the glutinous glitz of his former existence? Of being best pals with Harry Styles, getting drunk with Adele, all that ghastly faux bonhomie with Prince Harry?

As Lady Macbeth almost once said, what is seen cannot be unseen.

And when James and his pale legs move about onstage in the unfolding tragedy of The Constituent, I find myself unable to forget that he once compared tattoos with Dakota Johnson and complained that overweight actors like him never get leading romantic roles.

'Chubs Snubs Blubs,' was the unsympathetic tabloid headline which greeted that little career grumble.

Well, he is very far from a romantic lead here, playing a broken man who has been rejected by both the country he risked his life for and the wife he loves.

Can the former chat show host possibly pull off this dramatic and enigmatic turn of events?

In the new James Corden lexicon, there is no such word as can't.

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