Ahead of Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis opening in Scarborough, Nick Ahad speaks to playwright Charlotte Jones.
In 2016 Hull Truck Theatre played host to a play that I had sort of heard of by reputation, but never seen.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis was, I had heard, a funny play, but I knew little more of it other than the title. It was not a title that filled me with optimism. As I said in the review I wrote for the Yorkshire Post at the time, I was a little concerned: was I going to see a play featuring the kind of humour that might belong in an unreconstructed 1970s sitcom?
I need not have worried. The play was full of heart and packed with laughs and while the title describes exactly what you get with the show, it doesn’t give you the full picture.
This time around I was delighted when I saw Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis programmed for one of our theatres and particularly pleased that it was for Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. The SJT, ‘Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre’ now under the charge of artistic director Paul Robinson, is a theatre actively looking for opportunities to present work with diversity of cast, an opportunity it appears to have seized with this production.
The play tells the story of Josie Botting, a work-from-home dominatrix who has lost the will to dominate, and isn’t really in the mood to party despite it being her birthday. Her most loyal client, Lionel, is keen to mark the occasion, and arranges for a special appearance from the ‘King’, in the shape of novice Elvis impersonator Timothy Wong. So far, so farcical.
The building blocks are in place from the outset for a madcap romp of a night at the theatre and, as audiences in Bolton discovered exactly 20 years ago, the comedy continues to build. It is remarkable that a play reaching its two decade anniversary this year continues to be staged, but perhaps it is little wonder, given the rapturous reception it received.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis was writer Charlotte Jones’s third play and her breakthrough hit.
“It has stood the test of time, I guess, although it was never a hit in London. We never quite got the ingredients right for it to go into London’s West End,” says Jones, demonstrating the kind of drive and determination that has helped make such a success of her writing career.
“What is wonderful is that it continues to have this further life, it’s kind of miraculous when I think about it. I think what helps is that it’s a real rep play, which means it’s a piece that a decent-sized cast can all get their teeth into.” Jones wrote the play when she was a writer-in- residence at the Bolton Octagon and was commissioned to write something that connected with the local audience.
“I remember I was told to make every third line funny and I said ‘I’m not Alan Ayckbourn’. I said the best I could do was give it a go and I think I ended up with a real crowd pleaser.”
It’s fair to say she did. The play won the Best New Play Award at the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards, it bagged Jones the plaudit of Critics Circle Most Promising New Playwright and toured nationally several times within a few years of opening, including one such tour which starred Maureen Lipman.
“I was worried that it would only speak to Bolton audiences,” says Jones. “There’s a lot of truth and humanity in the play, which is why I think it has translated to different audiences and come back so regularly. It’s been to America, something I never thought would happen, but I suppose the themes are universal and that demonstrates that.” For Jones this production of her play holds a special resonance because of where it is happening. In the couple of years before the play she was in Scarborough working as an actor and it was while in the SJT rep company that she met her husband. “I had the most idyllic summer season in Scarborough. I really did love absolutely everything about the place, so I am so pleased the play is having this new incarnation in the town where I have so many happy memories,” she says.
After the success of Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, Jones continued to write for theatre with her next play, Humble Boy, premiering at the National and winning even more awards for the then fledgling writer. She has gone on to write several more plays and her work was taken to a different audience when she created and wrote the series The Halcyon, broadcast by ITV in 2017.
“Spending a decade writing for television is a hard lesson for a writer. Everyone faces rejection but you do spend a lot of time writing things that stay in development for years and it is actually very rare for something to get made,” she says.
“It is why I really do appreciate that my play is being produced at a regional theatre and it would be lovely to think people will go along and see it and have a good time.”
Play tackles different issues
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis is a play which tackles all manner of issues within the frame of a good night out. Josie, who works from home as a dominatrix, has a daughter Brenda-Marie who has learning difficulties and an Irish Catholic cleaner with OCD. There is also a shock guest who throws a spanner in the works. For the run in Scarborough, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has teamed up with the Newcastle-Under-Lyme New Vic theatre to present this co-production.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 28 to April 20. Tickets www.sjt.uk.com or 01723 370541.