ComedyDramaNorth WestReview

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis – Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Writer: Charlottte Jones

Director: Mark Babych

Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is the story of a Bolton dominatrix turning 50 and reviewing her life. As that might imply, it is a comedy. It took some minutes for the comic chemistry to connect between stage and audience, but once it did, it built steadily throughout the performance. As we move from daughter, to client, to cleaner, to Chinese Elvis, lives are intertwined and changed and a shock arrives at the end of the first act that will ripple through the rest of the play.

Charlotte Jones wrote Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis in 1999 when she was Writer in Residence to the Octagon. She was charged with writing a comedy and making every third line funny. This play doesn’t quite achieve that, but it moves rapidly into the conventions of farce: characters dress up in daft costumes and make rapid entrances and exits at both opportune and inopportune moments. It is comically accomplished in many ways, but the taste of some of the comedy has soured a little 17 years on. Is a woman having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder funny in itself? Is the simple fact of a heterosexual man cross-dressing necessarily hilarious? The absence of mobile phones and references to social media suggest the play is still set in 1999, but this is never explicitly stated. It reads as the present day and so the tone of some of the jokes is perhaps a little jarring, as is some of the language and attitudes towards sex working.

There is a strong cast who make a good comedy ensemble. Lynda Rooke is a convincingly world-weary Josie, rebelling after one too many sessions playing the dominatrix to her clients. Anna Wheatley is endearing as Brenda-Marie, though her voice characterisation choices make some lines hard to grasp. Isabel Ford has perhaps the strangest character journey and manages to make it convincing despite a somewhat implausible plot. Christopher Chung is charming as Timothy Wong/Chinese Elvis, turning the mediocrity of his impersonation into an advantage and his vulnerability into strength. He is the cipher through which everyone else’s epiphanies are channelled, remaining himself unchanged.

The symbolism of play is physically represented in the set, which looks like half a snow globe, complete with a snow-capped staircase. This image is over-egged in the final section of the play, when the set and the dialogue are both over-laying the snow metaphor only to have it snow not just on stage but also in the auditorium. The effect is distracting and comical in a bad way.

Most of Martha, Joise and the Chinese Elvis still works. Its humour might be a bit dated in places, it might borrow from other sources a little obviously and the tone might change gears a bit clunkily, but for all those shortcomings, it is warm-hearted comedy which pleased it audience.

Runs until 2 April 2016 | Photo: Andrew Billington

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