Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

Reviewer's Rating

A perfect 6!

What a treat! When a multi-generational audience giggles, whoops, gasps and cries before leaping up to a standing ovation on a cold Thursday in February, you know you’re experiencing theatre magic – helped along by some beguiling indoor snow.

We are coaxed into the main house to the dulcet tones of the King. The Elvis cushions and carpet of Patrick Connellan’s set are as claustrophobic as the gilded cage that surrounds them. For a few moments, a normal (ie dull) living room drama threatens: but only for a moment! Cue a delightfully Bolton-vowelled commentary on an imagined skating triumph by idiot savante Brenda-Marie, a hysterical routine featuring dominatrix Josie (Rooke) and her client Lionel (Branwell), and dull normality has (like Lionel’s alter ego ‘Miss Geraldine’) assumed the position of the trollop.

The interwoven stories of Martha and Josie are linked by Lionel’s surprise party guest: Elvis Tribute act, Timothy Wong (Chung) nervously starting out on his singing career, ‘the costume gave me the confidence – it’s all in the costumes’. He – like everyone else – is hiding behind a disguise. The performances by Wong, and the aptly named ‘catastrophe cocktails’, punctuate the family drama as Josie’s skeletons are unpicked and Martha’s unhappiness unfolds. For both women Elvis has always been there: a crutch, an escape, a Messiah – Martha’s hope is that the second coming will be wearing rhinestone and singing Love me Tender.

You cannot but warm to Lionel. From the delicate points of his patent pumps to his much maligned bald pate he’s a very particular kind of dry cleaner with a heart of gold. His kindness ensures Josie is valued for her skills (‘a lashing from you is like an aria!’) and is not alone on her 50th birthday. His profession – other people’s clothes – means he sees behind all the careful disguises.

OCD Irish Martha counts to keep her demons at bay and dreams of being a combat-wearing bobby dazzler. Instead she’s made gowns for still-born babies, cleans obsessively and is afraid of a world full of ‘skullduggers’. Lionel steers her to a better use for her counting: in a stylish tango.

Louise (Grady) makes a tricky role look easy. Arriving at the climax of the first act, and embodying the ‘not dead’ Elvis myth, Louise makes Josie confront her own living death, frozen by loss. The daughter being the double of her mother creates another disguise for both women to retreat behind until Elvis works his magic and helps them to talk to each other at last.

But the crowning performance of the night must go to Wheatley as Brenda-Marie. More grounded and realistic than the so-called normality around her, she accepts her limitations and being ‘special’ while at the same time finding joy and hope in things that matter. Her earlier feud with Martha resolves when both award each other a perfect 6.

Mark Babych sensitively directs the full range of this joyous layered piece by Charlotte Jones. He draws fine nuanced performances from his troupe, and helps us follow the bitter-sweet references through thought-out visual, musical and structural cues. Each gag is well managed, each sniff and lump in the throat properly earned. As the stakes mount and the truth looms large, performances, music and set combine to transport us to a hyper-reality where dreams and fantasies are realised in their own way without hurting anyone.