ComedyNorth East & YorkshireReview

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis – Hull Truck Theatre

Writer: Charlotte Jones

Director: Mark Babych

Designer: Patrick Connellan

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The standing ovation from a large part of the audience reflected the efforts of a talented, committed and wonderfully energetic cast in Mark Babych’s inventive production, but Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis remains a problematic, if entertaining, play.

Originally staged in 1999 at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, co-producers of the present revival, Charlotte Jones’ play has been described, not least by the writer herself, as a farce. It is certainly filled early on with the comedy of strange actions and even stranger people. Josie is a dominatrix who, when not cracking the whip with her customers, seems almost conventional, the straightforward one in a household with her daughter Brenda-Marie, whose learning difficulties run to a loud and excitable devotion to ice-dance, and her cleaner Martha, strictly Catholic, counting and cleaning frantically in the grip of obsessive-compulsive syndrome.

Lionel is an unprepossessing dry-cleaner, a favoured client of Josie who enjoys cross-dressing and he is the one who brings along a surprise guest to Josie’s birthday party: Timothy Wong, the Chinese Elvis. Add in the unexpected return of Louise, Brenda-Marie’s supposedly dead sister, and the ingredients are there for the farce to get crazier by the minute.

However, the second half changes gear. There are wildly comic scenes, to be sure, but the tone shifts so that the main thrust is towards yet another wish-fulfilment drama. Grotesques become sympathetic human beings and the transition isn’t wholly convincing. The inspired idea that the Chinese Elvis, a bizarre concept in itself, is the most normal and ordinary of the group always works brilliantly, but not everything is as believable.

Anna Wheatley’s Brenda-Marie, all whirling childish gestures, elongated Lancashire vowels and outrageous frankness, is a comic tour de force, as is Isabel Ford’s Martha, religious certainty and wild orgies of cleaning giving way to uneasy confessions of inadequacy. Lynda Rooke as Josie holds everything together without the dynamism of more eccentric characters, Natalie Grady (Louise) introduces a pleasing note of normality and John Branwell’s dogged decency as Lionel contrasts with his frolics in a maid’s outfit.

The delicate balance between the reality and dreams, between theatricality and truth, is best brought out in Timothy Wong, the Chinese Elvis, beautifully played by Christopher Chung. The contrast between the shy, decent and awkward lad from Whalley Range who doesn’t always know the second verse of songs and the flamboyant Elvis impersonator is perfectly judged – and he sings pretty well, too.

Mark Babych directs with sure-footed confidence, bringing sparkle to the outrageous comedy and pulling out all the stops to make the audience share the dreams of these strange characters. Patrick Connellan makes the most of the chance to design some outrageous costumes – Brenda-Marie’s outfits more over the top than Elvis’ – and places the action in a fairly realistic, but Elvis-themed living room within a sort of gilded cage. “I’m caught in a trap” is his own, totally appropriate comment on the set.

Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image:Andrew Billington

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