Writer: Charlotte Jones
Director: Robert Wolstenholme
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Written in 1998, Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis makes its London debut in the Park Theatre, but a lot has happened since 1998, and now Charlotte Jones’s Bolton comedy seems a little worse for wear. Jokes about OCD, sex work and men dressing up in women’s clothes make for uncomfortable laughs in 2019.
However, these laughs aren’t entirely gratuitous, and all Jones’s characters are exceedingly likeable people. First, we have Irish cleaner Martha who counts to five constantly to ward off evil or the unpredictable. And then there’s 40-year-old Josie, a dominatrix who can no longer be ‘chuffed’ to spank her clients. One of them, Lionel, likes to wear a French maid’s dress while being humiliated on his knees. Add Brenda-Marie, who has mild learning difficulties and whose ambition is to be an Olympic ice dancer, and Vietnamese Timothy, a Chinese Elvis impersonator, and then we have our improbable cast.
The majority of the play is centred on a party that Lionel (Andrew P Stephen) throws for his mistress, and there is more than one unexpected guest. The humour is broad, but thankfully the acting is more subtle, especially that of Charlie Bence, who plays the eager and kind-hearted Brenda-Marie. Matt Lim also gives a nice performance as Elvis, awkward and delightfully amateur. As Martha, Sioned Jones tries her best, but her journey from spinster to bobby dazzler in the space of an evening is hard to swallow. Josie is solidly played by Kellie Batchelor, despite the fact that her character has nowhere to go.
Although there’s a sitcom quality to the production, the last five minutes of the play are thrillingly inventive, and it’s a shame that director Robert Wolstenholme hasn’t created more moments like these. There are also a few problems with sightlines, too, with one corner of the audience completely missing out on Elvis’s facial features as he sings for the first time. Hopefully, this can be rethought for future performances, but there’s nothing wrong with his outfits, designed by Amy Mitchell, who also designs the simple set.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is billed as an alternative Christmas show, but apart from the occasional references to sex, and these are mostly harmless anyway, the play’s themes are forgiveness and hope, traditionally presented at Christmas, and hardly alternative. It seems an odd choice for The Park Theatre to revive, but, in the end, it does have a certain charm.
Runs until 4 January 2020