Arts: Theatre: Reality whipped into a delightful froth

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The Independent Culture
THE AUDIENCE stood and cheered. How often, amid business plans and the drone of the audit, must regional theatre director's dream of reading such words. How pleasant then to be able to report from Lawrence Till's cash-strapped Octagon, which strives so hard to give its audience not just easy-listening theatre but breadth and challenge, that at the end of Charlotte Jones' new comedy last night the audience did so.

The successful, main-stage new play is the Holy Grail of contemporary theatre. What does Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis tell us of how others can be found? Forget the earnest pursuit of contemporary relevance. What that seeks is social typicality. What interests Jones is eccentricity. She relies not on sociological observation, but imagination.

Take Martha (the excellent Anny Tobin), who dominates the first 10 minutes. She is a devout Irish cleaning lady for whom the war against household dirt is but part of a wider vigilance requiring, for instance, memorising suspicious cars: "Those number plates spoke volumes to me". Defended by a battery of tics, imprecations to the Trinity, repeated counting from one to five, and dreams of pilgrimages to Lourdes and Graceland, she leaps instantly and originally to life. More of a problem is what to do with her. Subsequently, Martha repeats herself before, too predictably, she undergoes a liberating metamorphosis.

Development is the play's main difficulty as the plot advances in sudden lurches. The first is the discovery that the suburban semi that Martha bleaches and deodorises is a house of ill-repute, in that its mistress, Josie (Ann Rye), is a dominatrix, albeit semi-retired and with "an artificial hip looming". Her one remaining "nappy-man", as her daughter with "meaning difficulties" Brenda-Marie (Debra Penny), calls him, is Lionel, Malcolm Hebden's mildly melancholy dry-cleaner. It is he who organises a birthday party for Josie with an Elvis impersonator as surprise guest - the timid Timothy Wong (Paul Courtenay Hyu). He does not organise the bigger surprise: the return of Shelley-Louise (Melanie Ramsay), Josie's other daughter, whom she has claimed to be dead.

That mother and daughter might be reconciled; that Martha and Lionel might find each other; that Brenda-Marie and Timothy Wong might strike the rapport of the lonely can all be seen from afar. But the sentimentality is cut by the generous absurdity of character and action, and sometimes by a skewering wit. When Josie ends the inevitable big speech to Shelley- Louise, she remarks "that's the most I've ever said without a whip in my hand".

This is not a casual joke. Earlier, Lionel has hymned Josie as the poet of the domination world, and in part the play is about the conjuring of fantasies by words. Although excessively frothy in places, it shows Jones to be an abundant wordsmith and imaginer.

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