Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

Charlotte Jones
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Like Bolton Octagon, Oldham Coliseum has chosen to end its season with a summer production of a comedy set in a living room decorated for Christmas, although the Coliseum's all-female Bolton house has a rather tidier and cleaner room than the Octagon's all-male Irish household.

Charlotte Jones has assembled quite an odd collection of characters to inhabit this room. The house belongs to Josie, whose respectable appearance conceals her profession as a dominatrix prostitute, but as she reaches her fiftieth birthday she is getting tired of her role-playing profession. Her daughter Brenda-Marie has a 'syndrome' so that she acts with childish enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and innocence to everything and everyone and gets confused about metaphorical expressions as she takes them literally, and she still mourns the death of her twin sister Shelley-Louise seven years earlier. Irish cleaner Martha is obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness and about constantly counting to five and her Catholic morals would not allow her to work there if she suspected her employer's profession.

Lionel is a client of Martha with a fondness for wearing women's clothes, but when he learns it is Martha's birthday he quickly arranges a party for later on with a surprise guest of a Chinese Elvis impersonator. Martha has always been a fan of Elvis, but Josie shocks them by revealing her life-long passion for the King of Rock 'n' Roll as well. However the appearance of another surprise guest completely breaks apart this happy little group.

The play is funny in a quirky way with some farcical touches, plenty of sentimentality, some over-frank discussions about things long-repressed and some heavy-handed symbolism. At the end, it sends up its own rather too-perfect ending by switching into complete fantasy and over-the-top wish fulfilment, which actually works quite well.

Richard Foxton's set looks very authentic as a reasonably smart working class living room with a window looking out onto a small garden containing Brenda-Marie's tent and the pebble-dashed gable end of the next house.

Sarah Parks is suitably strong but weary as Josie, Becky Hindley is intense and sour-faced as Martha and Michael Strobel creates a sympathetic character as cross-dressing client Lionel. Catherine Kinsella is excellent as Brenda-Marie and Clara Darcy is good as the other surprise guest, with an excellent singing voice. Nicholas Goh as Timothy Wong, the Chinese Elvis of the title who acts as the Shakespearean fool character by giving the best advice to everyone, is, however, rather wooden in the part.

The main problem with the production, though, is some ill-judged direction from director Kevin Shaw. So much of it seems under-worked or poorly-paced, which kills the comedy. The end of the first act seems to be written to build up to hilarious chaos with Chinese Elvis singing while surprising revelations and explosive situations are happening at the same time, but it just doesn't achieve that complete breakdown of the little onstage society that farce requires. The second act is overlong and drags on a bit, but the fantasy ending is quite well staged.

There were plenty of loud guffaws from the audience, but still it's hard not to think that they were a little short-changed by a production that misses so much of the potential of a play that isn't a great piece of theatre but could be much funnier and more polished than this.

Until 11th July

Reviewer: David Chadderton