Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

elvis head 

Martha, Josie and The Chinese Elvis

Highbury Theatre Centre


SO, we have Bolton’s own Miss Whiplash; a very naughty, apparently, bald dry cleaner with a penchant for wearing fishnets and frocks; a God - and number - fearing Irish spinster a few beads short of a rosary; and a Vietnamese boat boy who is now a fledgling Elvis impersonator.

Throw in a daughter who might not be away with the fairies but is certainly on friendly terms with them, and who obsesses about ice skating and longs for snow, then add the arrival of her long dead twin sister returning Lazarus-like to the fold and you know we are somewhere in a part of suburbia other plays fail to reach.

Charlotte Jones’ 1999 award winning play is a bittersweet comedy, at times gloriously funny, at times desperately sad, but, despite the bizarre characters, always human, filled with people generating empathy.

Josie, played with wonderful contrasts by Pippa Zvinia, is a single mum with two teenage daughters, living a quiet suburban life as the family breadwinner, except she wins the bread in her sitting room as a dominatrix – and if you don’t know what that is, you obviously haven’t been naughty enough!

It is her fortieth birthday, she is tired of . . . well, dominating I suppose, and is questioning her life.

The questioning comes during a session with one of her regular clients, old fishnets and maid’s outfit Lionel, who finds his disciplining curtailed by the sudden talk of retirement. Full of sympathy for his friend rather than his dominatrix he decides to cheer her up by throwing a birthday party – with a special guest.


Lionel is a sad figure, played with a resigned air of achingly dull normality by Dan Payne as a bald, stocky man with his best years behind him, best being a relative term,. He has no real relationships and he lives his life through the clothes he cleans and his regular visits to Josie to be disciplined for imagined acts of naughtiness he has never managed to have.

Fussing around them is the cleaner Martha Clear, a delightful performance from Denise Phillips, reprising the role she played in a previous production in 2010. Phillips; timing is first class as the cantankerous cleaner who trusts nothing or no one and is obsessed with counting to five whenever she is worried, frightened, angry, happy, sad, breathing, awake . . . entering or leaving with five knocks and five turns of the handle on both sides of the door takes ages but develops a life, and laughs, of its own, while dusting has to be done with five sprays of Pledge or whatever and five sweeps of the duster – six and upwards it seems leads to the world of the devil.

There is a reason . . . only telling you would spoil it, but, n a more serious level, it does give an insight into the miserable lives of people suffering from OCD.

Martha, the only cleaner Josie knows who actually cleans, knows nothing of what goes on in the hidden world of leather and whips, and prefers to leave it that way. She is tetchy, belligerent, and desperately lonely, something only seen by the equally lonely Lionel. Not that he is given much encouragement as Martha declares at one point that she is “stuck in a whorehouse with a Jew who likes to dress up in women’s clothing!”

Like Josie, though, she also has a secret, one that has affected her whole life and one she suddenly finds she wants to face

She is bad tempered, her fun is limited to merely waking up in the morning and she suffers from OCD, yet Phillips never crosses the line into panto caricature, she keeps Martha very much a person, showing that behind the grumpy façade is a sad, Irish woman who life has passed by.


Georgia Green is a wonderful Brenda Maria, the surviving daughter, who is not quite all there but still has enough left to make her probably the most normal of the bunch. She dreams of snow and fantasises about ice skating and Torvill and Dean, giving TV commentaries into a banana microphone of performances by her and her dead sister Shelly-Louise for Canada – Canada because after Torvill and Dean the British always come 15th. She is a hare brained delight.

In a play full of secrets Josie and Martha share another one, a love of Elvis. As Martha puts it: “I pray for the second coming . . . God forgive me for saying this . . . but when he comes, I hope he is wearing rhinestones and singing Love Me Tender.”

So the arrival of special guest Timothy Wong, another reprising his role from 2010, should be a delight, except Josie doesn’t want the party in the first place and Martha, in her party garb of all black, earning her the sobriquet of Morticia, is more party antidote than animal.

Which leaves our Chinese Elvis struggling to make himself heard, or at least listened to. Ham has all the right moves and a passable Elvis voice in a clever performance with his slightly effeminate manner and voice as Wong contrasting nicely with the snarling sexuality(ish) of the King – who incidentally never, as far as we know at any rate, suffered the indignity of Wong of being handcuffed to a coffee table and disciplined by a dominatrix and her daughter.

That delight for our Timothy is yet to come but for now this happy scene of domestic bliss is shattered when a second surprise guest arrives in the shape of Katie Allen as Shelly-Louise, who has supposedly been dead for the past four years but now seems very much alive.

It is a return to open up old wounds, old anger and old despair as mother and daughter clash and Brenda Marie’s memorial garden tent is decamped to the sitting room as a refuge for her and Chinese Elvis, who is finding this one for the money is harder work than expected.      

The second act has more serious themes than the scene-setting first with several poignant moments, particularly Allen’s monologue as to her “death” which is powerful and emotive stuff leaving you really feeling for her – a teenager coping with a loving mother who protects her family and dutifully provides for them . . . as a sex worker.

Director Rob Phillips, husband of Denise, who, incidentally was Lionel in 2010, sets a good pace on the excellent set and with an excellent cast brings out the contrast between what is on one hand a very funny, laugh out loud play with its bizarre collection of weird characters and on the other, a more serious and sad look at lives and relationships. Set on 6 January, Epiphany, this is a real Christmas treat from Highbury, catch it before it returns to sender on Saturday, 19 December.

Roger Clarke


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