Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

Charlotte Jones
Birmingham Rep
(2007)

It's eight years since Charlotte Jones' third play had its premiere. At the time Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis picked up awards galore and showed that the playwright had a promising future in front of her. Now she's revised her production which will go on a UK tour after its run at the Rep.

According to the programme notes, Jones wanted to fine-tune the balance between the farcical elements and the deep, emotional storylines that are such an integral part of the play. I can't comment on whether she's succeeded as I didn't see the original production. But on the evidence of the show at the Rep, there's still room for improvement, despite a highly experienced and talented cast.

That doesn't mean it's not an enjoyable evening's entertainment. The second half is funny and poignant in equal measure and it'll put a smile on your face that'll stay with you after you've left the theatre.

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is the tale of events surrounding the 50th birthday of Josie, a dominatrix who isn't in the mood for celebration. She has a hard life, caring for her daughter with learning difficulties, grieving for her other daughter who's supposedly dead and having to cater for demanding clients like cross-dressing Lionel.

Josie has to hide her activities from her passionately religious Irish cleaner Martha who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She's always dusting and does everything five times.

When Lionel stages a birthday party for Josie, Chinese Elvis impersonator Timothy Wong provides the entertainment and, in some cases unwittingly, provides the catalyst for change in all the other characters.

Maureen Lipman, who was last at the Rep two years ago playing Florence Foster Jenkins in Glorious!, gives a totally credible, rounded performance as Martha who gradually throws off the shackles of her repressed womanhood.

Best-known from seven series of the TV drama Where The Heart Is, Lesley Dunlop shows us an understated, careworn Josie who is shameless about what she does to earn money. She berates herself for the arguments which led to daughter Shelly-Louise leaving, a situation she explains by telling people that Shelly-Louise has died.

Paul Courtenay Hyu, who played Chinese Elvis in the original production, reprises the role and displays a huge difference between the deliciously over-the-top portrayal of Presley and the ordinary guy who is probably the least troubled of all the characters.

Rachel Kavanaugh, in her first season as artistic director of the Rep, directs and does a creditable job, although I found the first half lacked sparkle.

For the opening ten minutes I found it difficult to hear as some of the actors failed to project as well as they might have done.

The production really comes to life with the introduction of Shelly-Louise. Emily Aston almost steals the show as she throws herself into the part of the daughter who returns to the family home and initially faces the same old arguments. Ms Aston seems to fire up the rest of the cast who give the second half animation and vigour.

Michelle Tate impresses as troubled Brenda-Marie who wants to become an ice-skater and Derek Hutchinson admirably shows that his problems can be solved by the love of a good woman.

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis wins through in the end, despite the disappointing start. More work from Charlotte Jones could turn it into a long-running success - assuming of course there are enough Chinese Elvis impersonators to fill the blue suede shoes.5

"Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis" runs until March 10th

Sheila Connor reviewed this production in Woking

Steve Orme