Charlotte Jones’ wintry play has opened at the Park Theatre in a new production directed by Robert Wolstenholme.

Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis certainly scores points for originality – dreaming up a tale quite this outlandish is worthy of some recognition. It focuses on the life of Josie, who is utterly exhausted; tired of the cold winter in Bolton, tired of the demands of raising a daughter with learning difficulties, tired of the work she does as a dominatrix to make ends meet. She’s too tired to even celebrate her 40th birthday – but when one of her clients, Lionel, learns of this, he insists on throwing her a party, resulting in an unusual and eventful evening.

This show was the recipient of the Pearson Best Play Award in 1998, but it seems the landscape has changed a lot since then. While there are still some amusing moments, much of the humour feels dated, reliant on stereotypes and occasionally offensive. The characters are one-dimensional – Brenda-Marie (Charlie Bence) plays her role earnestly and with an infectious energy, but the running gag seems to be that she’s not very bright because she has learning difficulties, which is in bad taste. Meanwhile Martha (Sioned Jones), the cleaner, plays every Irish stereotype available, including a series of OCD routines.

It’s not all bad news. Some light entertainment has been booked for Josie’s party, and when inexperienced Elvis impersonator Timothy (Matt Lim) turns up things improve. He seems quite a likeable character with some depth and a bit of a back story. His awkward singing while a family drama erupts is an entertaining moment, while his variety of Elvis outfits to reflect the different stages of the King’s career are amusing.

Unfortunately a few funny gags and a handful of nice touches do not make for a great play. It may only be 20 years old but that time has not been kind to Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis. What may have been fresh and topical in the late 1990s feels dated and predictable now, while much of the humour seems a bit lazy and crude. It’s not a complete disaster, but we think the show needs a major overhaul to seem relevant again.

GAY TIMES gives Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis – 2/5

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