REVIEW: Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis (Park 90) ★★★★★
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is a brilliantly written, superbly performed play with great humour and emotion.
Seeing a lot of theatre does throw up some interesting situations – earlier in the week I saw and reviewed A Taste of Honey – a 50-year-old play about how women in restricted circumstances will do whatever they need to survive and the consequences this can have. In my review, I commented on how frighteningly relevant the subject matter remained. Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, set 40 years later in 1998 is similarly a story of a northern single mother doing what she feels she must and the impact that her choice has on her daughters.
The play is set in Josie’s sitting room in Bolton on the 6th January 1998. The Christmas cards and decorations are still up and as we enter the theatre there are Elvis Christmas songs playing over the speakers. It is Josie’s 40th birthday and she is not in the mood for celebration. Frustrated and bored in her job as a dominatrix she is grieving the “loss” of Louise, one of her twin daughters four years ago, when she was 18. The other twin Brenda-Marie, a childlike young woman, still lives at home with Josie and sees perhaps a little too much of what her mother does for a living without really comprehending what is going on. Brenda-Marie lives partly in her fantasy world, dreaming of being a champion ice dancer and passes her time channelling Barry Davies (the sports commentator) providing the narration to the imagined ice-skating performances of Brenda-Marie and Louise. The rest of the time she is delivering blunt but hilarious assessments of the adults around her.
When one of Josie’s clients, Lionel, attends for his usual appointment and finds Josie less than enthusiastic in her delivery, he decides to throw her a birthday party, inviting Martha, Josie’s OCD consumed cleaner as well as the titular Chinese Elvis. When an unexpected guest arrives, the party is thrown into chaos as each character confronts their own reality, the choices they have made and the future that awaits them.
Written by Charlotte Jones, this is a brilliantly observed, very funny play, that like A Taste of Honey, packs a punch. The cast are all excellent, playing characters that could easily border on caricature but their performances and the superb writing skilfully avoid that.
Kellie Batchelor plays Josie, the bored, put upon dominatrix who can no longer be bothered to put any oomph into her work. Her realisation and subsequent despair when faced with the consequences of her work is well delivered.
Sioned Jones is hilarious as Martha, Josie’s cleaner, who is convinced that her employer is a counsellor. Martha’s love of Elvis matches Josie’s and she is saving up to take a pilgrimage to Graceland. When Brenda-Marie suggests the Lourdes would be more suitable for the pious Irish catholic, Martha agrees that perhaps it would be ideal to come back from Memphis via Lourdes!
Andrew P Stephen is excellent as Lionel, a lonely man in search of human connection who relies on a dominatrix for his closest bond. The interactions between Lionel and Martha are both touching and hilarious.
Charlie Bence plays Brenda-Marie superbly, capturing the essence of a young innocent who has seen too much, delivering comical truth bombs into proceedings.
Matt Lim as Timothy Wong, the trainee Elvis impersonator is just brilliant. He captures the stumbling nervousness of a young man trying out as Elvis for the first time. Bewildered by the chaos swirling around him at the party and the actions of the adults that he can not relate to, he gravitates towards Brenda-Marie.
I have said in reviews previously how much I enjoy a trip to Park 90, the tiny upstairs space in the Park Theatre. While the productions can be a bit hit and miss (unsurprising with a lot of new writing being shown here) the staging in such a small space is always really interesting. For this production the staging is fairly straight forward but huge kudos must go to the set and costume designer Amy Mitchell for the outfits. She has completely nailed the Elvis costumes. Timothy Wong gives us Jailhouse Rock Elvis, GI Blues Elvis and finally Vegas Elvis and the costumes are perfect! She also delivers a fabulous Bolero costume for Brenda-Marie.
This is a really enjoyable brilliantly delivered, laugh out loud play.
Chase away the winter blues and go and see this production.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
FOLLOW WEST END WILMA