It’s safe to say that that Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is exactly as bizarre as it’s prosaic title might suggest. The set up is familiar, a significant birthday is marked by a party, attended by an ensemble of kooky and dysfunctional characters. It should be conventional, even cosy. We should feel every twist approaching. Charlotte Jones’ version of the birthday party play is anything but predictable.
One part farce, two parts family drama and three parts witty comedy, it follows a dominatrix and single mum on her fiftieth birthday. The six characters are sufficiently strange yet familiar. As an audience, we are somehow both connected and distant from them, we share their anxieties but not their compulsions. Jones’ writing is deft and witty if only rarely hilarious. Occasionally the scenes seem fumbling and confused, especially as we are still slipping into the theatrical world – a world authentic with tantalising whiffs of the fantastic.
The cast are stunning though diction is occasionally sacrificed for characterisation. Eamon Riley and Shelley Atkinson are particularly brilliant as the character parts. The pair light up the stage, believably and charmingly out of step with any sense of normality. They keep their chaos maintained in tightly organised comic sequences.
That said it is the family of the piece that truly form the heart of the show. Zara Jayne’s Brenda-Marie is particularly charming. Her naivete is wonderfully played against whip crack wit. With Jayne we dream and we feel just as much love for her as Jemma Churchill’s Josie demonstrates. Churchill plays the mother who happens to be a dominatrix, never the dominatrix who happens to be a mother. Each odd turn of the plot is perfectly motivated by her love for her children. In her interaction with Rachel Henley’s Louise, we find some truly dramatic moments fuelled by tension and laced with a comic thread.
The Chinese Elvis? At first glance, this seems an offhand addition to the piece, however Juan Hwang’s professional stage debut is anything but that. Just as we dream with Brenda-Marie, we dream with him, identify with him as an observer as the catastrophic plot unfolds around him. In our Elvis we find the embodiment of the play’s message of reinvention.
All of this is a credit to Gemma Fairlie’s direction. Every comic beat is well played and the interaction between performance and technical elements is otherworldly and moving. The use of the in the round staging brings the audience into the action, and through this, the comedy.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is raucous and yet somehow examines the complexities of age, and what we will do to make ourselves seen. It executes complex tonal shifts and is full of so much heart that we all fall somewhat in love with this cast of characters.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is playing until 20 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Stephen Joseph Theatre website.