By Will Barber Taylor
In a suburban semi on a cold winter’s evening, a collection of family, friends and acquaintances gather to celebrate a fortieth birthday. There’s Josie, the forty-year-old dominatrix conducting business from her living room and in no mood to celebrate; her daughter Brenda-Marie with a wisdom beyond her years even though she has special needs; Martha – Josie’s devout Irish cleaner who’s none the wiser and happy to keep it that way; and, of course, Lionel – Josie’s most loyal client with a heart of gold and a secret yearning to wear ladies’ dresses.
But no party would be complete without entertainment, and for once Josie has the night off. Elvis impersonator Timothy Wong has entered the building and only the arrival of a very unexpected guest could upstage the King himself.
Originally written and performed in the late 90s at the Bolton Octagon, Josie, Martha and the Chinese Elvis is a play about acceptance. Whilst it exists primarily in a world that very much represents and reflects Bolton in the 90s, it’s story transcends those boundaries. Even though it is set in the North of England, it could easily be staged anywhere between the Welsh valleys and the outskirts of Cairo and beyond because of its internal theme of accepting who you are and not trying to deny that.
All of the characters feel this in one way or another. Their insecurities and desire help make them relatable characters. Of course, not all of will be able to relate to certain parts of the characters, say Timothy Wong, as not all of us have been Elvis impersonators. Yet we can still empathise with him – we’ve all known someone who has felt cut off from society because of their sexuality and many of them have been able to find acceptance through music. These timeless characteristics makes all the characters feel uninhibited. If anything, the play is about a releasing of inhibitions – Martha in particular is able to release herself from her past in Ireland to come to terms with the present and pursue her dreams.
The set is great with Mark Babych’s directorial eye helping to use it to its full potential. By keeping the set generally free from everything but the required seats and other objects, the comedy is able to take a clear sweep and the actors are free to use the space to create brilliant comedy. The lack of clutter also helps to transform the space in the audience’s mind – from Josie’s “work space” to the King’s stage; Babych lets the actors fully inhabit their characters and the audience is never distracted by the set.
All the actors preform exceptionally well. Anna Wheatley as Brenda Marie particularly stood out – her portrayal was so realistic you felt like the character was before you. Her energetic, funny and touching take on the character was one of the highlights of the show and helps cement the audience’s connection with all the characters in the play.
Overall, Martha, Josie and The Chinese Elvis is an electric, entertaining and engaging play that will not fail to touch anyone who sees it. It has a message about engaging with everyone around you no matter what makes them different from you and it is that engaging and thought provoking message which makes it more relevant now than ever.