BWW Review: MARTHA, JOSIE AND THE CHINESE ELVIS, Park Theatre
The Park Theatre are doing Christmas a little differently on their smaller stage this year, presenting an adult play that's seasonal only in its wintry setting. Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is an avalanche - and not in a good way.
Elvis-obsessed Josie is turning 40 and can't seem to bring herself to be the dominatrix she once was. Her favourite client Lionel throws her a birthday bash and, as a present, invites an Elvis impersonator to brighten up the evening. Someone else decides to show up unannounced, and Josie's lies come crumbling down. The piece was the recipient of the 1998 Pearson Best Play Award, and oh my, how times have changed.
Written by Charlotte Jones and here directed by Robert Wolstenholme, Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is outdated in its script, cheap in its humour, and unengaging in its direction. It feels like watching reruns of an old-fashioned sitcom, complete with anti-semitic throwaway gags and running jokes that are borderline offensive. The elements that supposedly build the comedic side of the show are exasperating and repetitive when they're not plainly distasteful.
The characters are reduced to laughingstocks. Brenda-Marie (Charli Bence) is a young woman with learning disabilities (which is clearly funny... Sarcasm!), Martha (Sioned Jones), the cleaner, is a stereotypical Irish Catholic woman with OCD tendencies (hilarious! ...Not!), Lionel (Andrew P Stephen) visits Josie to dress in women's clothing and be dominated (clever! Sure...), and Josie (Kellie Batchelor) herself is an exhausted parody of what she could be.
Elvis (Matt Lim) is a young Vietnamese man who's just started on the job and doesn't even know all the songs yet, but does his best to entertain his crowd. His character arc is probably the most interesting one to follow, which says a lot. We'll leave the other character - who has a very EastEnders entrance - out to prevent spoilers, even though, really, there's nothing more to add to what's been already said.
Acting wise, the show is also a bit of a mess. A soap-opera flatness permeates the performances until the break, to pick up again after 20 minutes or so into the second act. The play seems to have a bit of an identity crisis here after the interval, with Jones attempting to be serious and give her characters depth by revealing their dramatic traumas.
The politics of this specific universe are also arguable in 2019, showing how much more forgiving theatre was 21 years ago. One could reproach us that the show's simply being politically incorrect for the sake of a laugh, but is it? The "Chinese Elvis" quip is exceedingly exploited to the point where it stops being a reference to Elvis's being "Made in China" rather than in the USA and turns into an uneasy remark.
The same goes for Martha's OCD counting and Brenda-Marie's "simpleness". Women's desires are also reduced to men and marriage, with the cleaner's sudden freedom from her religious cage because a guy (who she doesn't even really like!) has shown interest in her (or rather, her dominating side) being a poor Get Out Of Jail Free Card. The "deeper" storyline is also rather meagre and doesn't fulfil the feel-good goals of the play at all.
While the characters guzzle Catastrophe after Catastrophe (Lionel's signature drink), one almost wishes the show would take an interactive turn so that they could share their drinks with the audience to make it easier for them. And then, after two hours inclusive of an interval, the final Christmas miracle happens! The show is over.
Image courtesy of Lidia Crisafulli