Martha, Josie And The Chinese Elvis Brings Us Alternative Christmas Fare From A Living Room In Bolton
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It seems to be an unwritten rule of Christmas fiction that everything culminates on Christmas Day (usually in the morning). So it's pleasing that Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis dumps that tradition from the get-go. The play sits in the afterglow of the Yuletide season, with characters and a setting that are just about as 'alternative' as alternative Christmas fare gets.
Set in Bolton just before the turn of the 20th century, Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis brings together a collection of oddballs for a 40th birthday party. Dominatrix Josie's birthday party, to be specific. The party is the brainchild of Lionel, a client of the reluctant Josie's. Rounding out the attendees are Josie's daughter Brenda-Marie, her devout Catholic OCD-suffering cleaner Martha, and a novice Elvis impersonator who Lionel hires as entertainment. And from there hijinks ensue, thanks to Lionel's signature cocktail, The Catastrophe, and the return of a mystery guest.
Although he is listed at the back-end of the show's title, and it's a few scenes before he appears, Chinese Elvis is the beating heart of the play. While all the other characters have some sort of arc to fulfil over the course of the play, he stands apart. The impersonator acts almost as a therapist to the other characters as they bounce their thoughts off him — interspersed with an occasional pretty decent song from, and gloriously abysmal hip swivel impersonation of, the King thrown in. He gets the biggest guffaws of the night, especially in the first act's finale, where his dedication to his job and obliviousness to everything around him has the audience in hysterics.
While the first half is brimming with laughs, it all gets a little bit more serious after the break. And by 'serious', I should clarify that I mean 'uncomfortable'. Without going in to too much detail, one scene raises a few more questions than it might have done when the play debuted in the late 90s. The topic itself isn't problematic, it's the way that it's swept under the carpet so swiftly in order to get back to the fun stuff.
Although I can't entirely blame them, considering that the fun stuff is so fun it often drowns out the actors with belly laughs. And while the setting, the sex talk, and the oddball cast all clearly mark the play out as alternative, the show's sentiments aren't. At the end of the day, the punters get sent home with some proper Christmas cheer.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP. Tickets £16.50-£18, until 4 January 2020.
Last Updated 17 December 2019