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Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

Charlotte Jones
Octagon Theatre Bolton and Hull Truck Theatre
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Christopher Chung as Timothy Wong/Chinese Elvis Credit: Andrew Billington
Anna Wheatley as Brenda-Marie and Lynda Rooke as Josie Credit: Andrew Billington
John Branwell as Lionel and Isabel Ford as Martha Credit: Andrew Billington

Originally commissioned for the Octagon in 1998, Charlotte Jones's play has a title that sounds like one of those writing challenges that presents some random things and asks the writer to create a story that joins them up.

Josie is a dominatrix prostitute, trying to avoid celebrating her fiftieth birthday, whose house is filled with Elvis memorabilia. Martha is her cleaner, ignorant of her employer's profession and a devout Catholic, plus she has a form of OCD that means she has to count everything she does in multiples of five. The Chinese Elvis is Timothy Wong, just starting out as an Elvis impersonator and brought in by Josie's regular client and friend Lionel as a birthday surprise.

Equally important to the plot but without a mention in the title is Brenda-Marie, Josie's daughter, who has "a syndrome", of a type not specified, that means she acts like a young child; she is obsessed with ice dance and has a tent in the garden where she goes to remember her dead twin sister (spot the Elvis link there). Elvis isn't the only surprise guest at the party—but to say any more would spoil one of the big revelations.

Jones can certainly pen some funny lines; the script is littered with gags, and many of them work very well as delivered by this experienced cast. The plot is a bit creaky with familiar strands with endings you can guess a mile off. Will the strait-laced middle-aged spinster let down her barriers to the man pursuing her? Will estranged family members discard their differences and be reconciled? Will the Chinese Elvis realise that he doesn't have to be Elvis to be a good performer? It's a comedy so the ending is a little idealised, taken further into a happy fantasy sequence.

Former Octagon artistic director Mark Babych returns to Bolton to direct this co-production with his current company, Hull Truck, which works well when it is funny but less-so when it tries to get serious. The script is littered with apparent metaphors—waiting for snow, suspended animation, the snow globe, ice skating—but the plot doesn't have enough substance for them to have a great deal of resonance.

Lynda Rooke leads the cast with a confident performance as Josie and great comic delivery and Isabel Ford turns Martha into an entertaining comic character. Christopher Chung brings out the nervous uncertainty of Timothy Wong, Anna Wheatley is great as the happy "syndrome" girl Brenda-Marie, Natalie Grady is other family member Louise and John Branwell is the most "normal" of them all as Lionel, trying to hold everything together—despite being a cross-dressing lapsed Jew and one of Josie's "Nappy Men", as Brenda-Marie refers to her mother's clients.

The play is entertaining at the level of a sit com if a little long (2 hours 40 including interval) with plenty of laughs, but it seems to be aspiring to something more serious, which it doesn't really reach. But leave the audience with a happy fantasy and drop fake snow on them at the end and they go home happy.

Reviewer: David Chadderton