Martha, Josie and Elvis – now in the building and we’re all shook up - verdict on first play of new season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre

Jun Hwang as Timothy Wong in Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis
Jun Hwang as Timothy Wong in Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis

Let’s have a party – says one of the characters in Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, the first play of the new season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

So they do. All the ingredients are there – reluctant host, mystery guest, unexpected guest, music, tears, laughter, declarations of love and outrageous outfits.

To add spice, the play’s author Charlotte Jones has made her ‘family’ as dysfunctional as a clapped-out Hoover.

Mum Josie is a bored dominatrix who has lost the will to whip, her daughter Brenda-Marie has a ‘syndrome’, her Irish Catholic cleaner Martha has OCD, her favourite client Lionel is a lapsed Jew who likes wearing women’s clothing and her 20-something daughter Shelley-Louise has changed her name and done a runner.

Into this gathering – Josie’s 50th birthday party – walks Timothy Wong, a Chinese Elvis impersonator with identity issues of his own.

The comedy comes not just from the interaction of the characters but also from their attempts to cast off the chattels which repress their personalities and desires.

The play’s big heart lies in its celebration of ‘the wonder of you’. It deals with big themes of identity, belonging and family but it hits you over the head with them with all the force of a feather duster (thank goodness).

The cast of six are perfect together and singularly brilliant.

Zara Jayne is the first actress with disabilities to play Brenda-Marie. No obvious concessions have been made for her tackling the task she has in being the anchor of the play. She is the only character who feels free to express herself – through her love of ice dancing and snow.

Jayne is a delight to watch, garnering laughs and some tears with cheeky, chirpy optimism as she tackles life head-on.

Jemma Churchill as her mum Josie strides round the stage trying to keep it together while underneath the brittle exterior her heart is being torn apart.

The scenes between Atkinson and Rachel Henley as her errant daughter Louise are full of tension and real emotion – the feeling of relief at their reconciliation - awkward as it is - was palpable.

Hysterical laughter and a warm glow greeted the transformation of Martha played with perfect comic timing and characterisation by Shelley Atkinson.

To say how she and Lionel get it together would be to spoil a highlight of the play.

Eamonn Riley as Lionel is totally believable as the kinky dry cleaner who just wants to be loved.

This Jun Hwang’s first professional role – not that you would know. He can sing and dance and not just like Elvis.

He is essentially the family’s good luck charm – encouraging them to be individuals and also finding the courage to shake off the Elvis togs he hides behind.

All the characters are so likeable, that a happy ending for them all is being willed from the back of the stalls.

It dares to dream and make wishes come true without being schmaltzy.

A host of Elvis tracks sum up this sweet, quirky, delightful and funny play.

It cries out for you to Love It Tender and you Can’t Help Falling in Love so It’s Now or Never to make a date to see it.

Martha,Josie and Elvis runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until Saturday April 20.