Chris Eldon Lee reviews Martha, Josie and The Chinese Elvis, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under Lyme until Saturday 18th May.
A stupendous standing ovation at a preview performance is not the most common experience in theatre … and I suspect most of last night’s generous applause was directed towards one actor in particular; Zara Jayne.
Zara is the first disabled actress to play the role of Josie’s disabled daughter Brenda-Marie, and her performance is absolutely effervescent.
She approaches the part in a totally unbridled, unselfconscious way; her character’s hopes and dreams spilling out of her like a babbling brook in full spate…always frothy, always on the go. Her comic (and poignant) timing is so good, she is a joy to watch … and must be a joy to work with.
The characters assembled around her are less logical.
Author Charlotte Jones has given each oddball invention disgraceful foibles to be revealed. Jemma Churchill is bold as burnished brass as Brenda-Marie’s mother Josie. She has a penchant for black leather but – having reached her 50th birthday – she can’t cope with the trauma of a party and is feeling much too old to continue being a dominatrix for a living.
Her Catholic cleaner, Martha (farcically played by Shelley Atkinson) is running a private, one-woman mission against our evil world. She is so fanatically religious she has a ‘six’ fixation – refusing to speak Satan’s number for fear of the unholy consequences.
Josie’s current ‘client’ is Lionel (Eamonn Riley) who is something in ‘dry cleaning’ and seems to get a bottom-wiggling, over-the-top thrill by dressing up as a French maid. His lack of hair prompt a hatful of baldness jokes and he spends the evening mixing cocktails called ‘catastrophe’ – whilst contributing to one.
It’s an uncomfortably funny play. The mismatch in the almost bi-polar behaviour of the characters rarely rings true for me. Elements of wicked farce come and go … alternating with raw discussion about loyalty and motherhood. When the missing member of the family turns up, there is chillingly shameful dialogue about parents letting their children down – and vice versa. So, whilst the individual passages in the play work very well within themselves, the junctions jar … like traffic humps on a busy road.
Ironically, the most believable character is the ‘Chinese Elvis’. (Well, South Korean, actually).
Hired by Lionel to help celebrate Josie’s fiftieth (and to bring a spot of Las Vegas to a dreary Bolton housing estate) actor Jun Hwang – as Timothy Wong – is a rather convincing YTS Elvis impersonator – too new in the job to have learned all his songs but jolly good at what he does. He sings and moves like the American version and there is some clever jiggery-pokery in the sound box as his voice and backing tracks mix, merge, echo and fade.
He also has a touch of Confucius about him … as the stranger in the room who tries to guide the dysfunctional family towards some sort of normality; a hopeless task. Needless to say, he’s not the Second Coming righteous Martha had in mind. When he asks to use the loo, she’s reminded that the ‘American Elvis’ died on one.
When Charlotte Jones’ play was commissioned 20 years ago there were some statistics released about Elvis impersonators. The number of people taking up the trade to supplement their income was growing so fast, it was predicted that by 2030, one in four people in the whole world would be an Elvis impersonator.
No wonder this play has done so well.