Jessica Forrest and Matt Lim in Martha, Josie & the Chinese Elvis. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
Written in 1999 and set in 1998 this is such a fine play I really can’t think why I haven’t come across it before. In this production – a collaboration between Signal Theatre Company and Park Theatre and directed by Robert Wolstenholme – it is both extremely funny and deeply moving. It’s a long time since I’ve laughed so much in the theatre and yet, at the same time, there’s powerful human interest.
Six people are in and out of a sitting room in Bolton and they are a pretty disparate lot: one, the householder, is a professional prostitute/domninatrix, another is a devoutly catholic, Irish spinster cleaner which an obsessive/compulsive disorder and a third is a teenager with an unspecified personality issue which includes disinhibition. Then there’s a masochistic male dry cleaner who likes wearing dresses, a professional Elvis impersonator and a daughter long since declared dead who had simply left home. Much of the humour, especially in the first act, comes from the situational incongruity of their being together. In fact, of course, each of them is lost and that’s where the focus shifts after the interval. It’s ultimately an upbeat piece though because one way or another they’re all pretty “found” by the end.
Sioned Jones is wonderful as Martha, the cleaner. She talks with her eyes reacting in horror to what she learns about the others, counting obsessively like a mantra in her worry and never smiling. The gradual softening of the character as she finally admits to herself what she really wants is beautifully done.
It’s never easy for an adult to play a teenager but Charlie Bence is convincing with her bold, inappropriate remarks and clumsy body language – until she eventually makes a friend, forgives her sister and finds both grace and gracefulness. Andrew P Stephen is hilarious as the initially pitiful Lionel, a customer of Kellie Batchelor’s character, Josie (played with verve) but Stephens makes sure we see that there’s more too him than that. Matt Lim as a local Vietnamese boy who imitiates Elvis rather badly is good fun – and he really can sing. And Jessica Forrest does well as Louise especially in the powerful scene in which she reveals why she left home in the first place.
The piece sits well in Park90 – Park Theatre’s studio space with seating on three sides. It’s quite an intimate show and the proximity of the audience helps. I arrived there knowing nothing at all about this play and was pleasantly surprised. It’s definitely once to catch if you can.
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli