Stage review: Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

The biggest concern going into this play was that I was about to sit through a show featuring the kind of humour that died around the time Peter Sellers '˜browned up' and put on a ridiculous accent to play an Indian doctor in The Party.

A scene from Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at Hull Truck Theatre.
A scene from Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at Hull Truck Theatre.

While the humour is broad, it does not, fortunately, rely on racial stereotypes. But then, despite the title, this is categorically not a play about racial politics and it couldn’t be further from being a polemic. It is a piece of high comedy which playwright Charlotte Jones grounds by nailing its feet to the floor with some serious family issues.

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Jones says she wanted to create a farce with this play. In the hands of Hull Truck director Mark Babych, it doesn’t really feel like a farce, but more a black family drama with flights of magic surrealism. Even the birdcage design suggests people trapped in their lives and desperate to flap their wings. Dominatrix Josie is having a crisis. Turning 50 with an OCD cleaner, a daughter with learning disabilities and her only friend a client who likes to wear a dress and feel the wind between his legs, she’s beginning to re-evaluate her position in life. The Chinese Elvis is Timothy Wong, brought along by client and friend Lionel to perform as a birthday treat for Josie. The story becomes ever more surreal as the evening wears on, and while emotional backstories play out, it is the high comedy, expertly handled by all, but by sisters Louise (Natalie Grady) and Brenda-Marie (Anna-Wheatley) in particular, that makes this play. Wheatley in particular finds a beautiful humanity in the role.