Elliot Levey

Review: The Mighty Walzer ★★★★ – Howard Jacobson’s comedy of table tennis and Jewish teenage angst in 1950s Manchester comes home in triumph

The Mighty Walzer 2016 c Jonathan Keenan 1 From the moment Elliot Levey ‘s Oliver Walzer bounds on stage and takes in the 360 degrees of audience seated around him, the warmth and inclusivity of Jonathan Humphreys’ perfectly-cast production works its magic, taking its audience back to 1950s Jewish Manchester, conjuring it up with what seems like just a few props and sound effects.

Simon Bent’s adaptation is extraordinarily faithful to the spirit and narrative of Howard Jacobson’s now classic comic novel of teenage angst and table tennis. He has a lovely knack of putting the right words into the right mouths to bring to life incidents described by the narrator in the novel. The comic tale of Oliver’s larger-than-life father Joel’s own attempt at competitive ‘sport’, entering the World Yo-yo Championship armed with his homemade, ridiculously outsized yoyo, makes for a delicious opening narrative, shared by Oliver and his parents, batting retorts to each other like a game of verbal ping pong.  Jonathan Tafler’s ebullient  Joel and Tracy-Ann Oberman’s beautiful portrait of  warm and worried Sadie, staying just the right side of classic Jewish mother, work wonderfully together as a sort of marital double act – can’t live together, can’t live apart. And Bent has come up with a wonderfully theatrical device for Oliver’s houseful of aunties. Not only are they reduced to just two, but both are played by the same great character actor, Ann Marcuson. She has a lot of fun as strangely identical love rivals Dolly and Dora, who of course are never seen onstage together …

Levey’s Oliver is also a 180 degree rounded creation. Bearded so that he recalls his creator Jacobson as gently as he recalls his youth, he engages with his eccentric family and all the denizens of his past, entering his own youth with all the hindsight of middle age, and the crisis he is negotiating, and brokering the deal between audience and action.

Oliver is backed up by a wonderfully eccentric gang of nerds, the ping pong posse into whose ranks he breaks so spectacularly during one memorable day at the local Jewish social club. The actors deftly create these individual young men but at the same time subsume their personalities as necessary to create the gang of nerds Oliver joins. So let’s hear it for Ilan Goodman aka Aishky, James Parris’s Twink, Joe Coen’s Sheeny Waxman and Daniel Abelson (niftily doubling as Uncle Motty and RoyBoy a (non Jewish) rival at the ping pong table) – and not forgetting David Grellin as destructive eminence grise, veteran player and serial Auntie seducer Gershom Finkel.

The Mighty Walzer 2016 c Jonathan Keenan

They are all totally convincing as driven, obsessive, competitive - and highly skilled - table tennis players. The game itself is brilliantly realised by bats on thin threads descending from the flies to be grasped and wielded by eager and expert hands. The balls themselves are simply sound effects – made, in a brilliant coup de theatre, by cast members breathing through microphones. Ben and Max Ringham are responsible for this and all the other highly effective soundscapes.

James Cotterill’s set goes for that very best of strategies for theatre in the round – selective realism, with judicious use of props and effectively enhanced by Lizzie Powell’s lighting. So audience attention focuses for example on the high cistern lavatory, the teenage Oliver’s refuge where he pores over his soft porn mags, keeping his infuriated father safely on the outside.

Perhaps the most spectacular focus is the van off the back of which Dad Joel sells his ‘swag’ – the rubbish souvenirs and novelties, cheap toys and trinkets with which he hopes to make his fortune. It’s wonderfully detailed – full of enticing stuff and brilliantly lit - a great background to the rollicking sales pitch of Joel and his acolyte Sheeny Waxman (Coen really relishes channelling Waxman’s gift of the gab here). And then – lights, camera, action – it’s replaced by a glowing, spectacularly-lit catwalk down which Lorna Peachley, the frighteningly desirable shiksa (non-Jewish girl) after whom Oliver lusts, sashays with her tennis racket – a perfectly pitched performance from blonde (and actually Jewish!) Mancunian Lily Sarcofsky!

But when it’s actually necessary to fill the stage – for example with cardboard boxes towards the end when the family is faced with having to pack up and move away, it all happens with consummate smoothness. For Bent wisely takes his action only as far as Oliver’s offer of a place at Cambridge, leaving the audience in the warm bubble of 1950s Manchester he and the company have so perfectly created to share with their audience.

It’s a marvellously detailed portrait of the life, loves, lusts and complexes of a Jewish teenage boy, perfectly evoking a particular time and place and bringing it to life, but actually subtly nuanced just because it’s seen through the lens of experience. And it’s warmly inclusive too – just enough Yiddishisms to get the feel right but always accessible from the context – you don’t have to be Jewish! Bent and Humphreys have done Jacobson and Jewish Manchester proud and they can kvell (Yiddish: express pride) over a job well done.

By Judi Herman

The Mighty Walzer runs until Saturday 30 July, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £8-£16, at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, M2 7DH. www.royalexchange.co.uk

Howard Jacobson and Sherry Ashworth appear in conversation on Monday 11 July, 7pm, £5, at Royal Exchange Theatre.

The Mighty Walzer Walking Tour runs Sunday 17 – Thursday 28 July, 10.30am, £7, at Manchester Jewish Museum, M8 8LW; 084 3208 0500. www.manchesterjewishmuseum.com

Chess in Shorts, an exhibition by Howard Jacobson and Manchester Jewish Museum, runs until Saturday 30 July, FREE, at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Read our interview with The Mighty Walzer's playwright and actor, Simon Bent and Elliot Levey as well as hearing our podcast with table tennis champion Jeff Ingber.