The Mighty Walzer

JR OutLoud: Table tennis champ Jeff Ingber talks about travelling the world playing the beautiful game


Jeff Ingber, table tennis champion for decades from the mid-20th century and one of Howard Jacobson's heroes, met up with JR's arts editor Judi Herman at the exhibition Chess in Shorts that accompanies the production of the Mighty Walzer at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Ingber told Judi about playing the other beautiful game in Manchester and how it was his passport to travel the world, from Israel to China.

Chess in Shorts, an exhibition by Howard Jacobson and Manchester Jewish Museum, runs until Saturday 30 July, FREE, at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, M2 7DH.

The Mighty Walzer runs until Saturday 30 July, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £8-£16, at Royal Exchange Theatre.

Read our review of The Mighty Walzer and our interview with the show's playwright and actor, Simon Bent and 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.

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.

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.

Interview: Playwright Simon Bent and actor Elliot Levey talk life in Manchester and bringing Howard Jacobson’s comic novel The Mighty Walzer to the stage

01RET Rehearsal The Might Walzer Elliot Levey (Oliver Walzer) photo Jonathan Keenan “It became a very exotic place for me.” Simon Bent is talking about the Manchester of the 1950s, the setting of Howard Jacobson’s mighty tale of table tennis, teenage angst and Jewish family life. “What attracted me to the book is that it’s about a particular culture at a particular time which is gone. Part of the book is about the loss of that Manchester. It was Howard’s attempt to ‘get down’ that world before it got lost.”

So how has the playwright approached the equally mighty task of bringing Jacobson’s erstwhile Manchester to the stage?

In the novel, the eponymous Oliver Walzer looks back on his teenage days growing up in houseful of aunties, run by his complicated mother and dominated noisily by his larger-than-life father, a salesman of ‘swag’, chachkas (Yiddish for cheap trinkets), and anything he can sell off the back of his van. Bright and bookish Oliver’s great escape is table tennis, a game where he can become first among equals: that is, other nerdy teenage Jewish boys equally obsessed with their indoor sport – and sexual yearnings.

“The clear through line is Ollie, sometime in the future, remembering his past – the pull between the grandiose ambitions of his father and the more reserved character of his mother. The grip of his family is something he struggles to escape from. The story is about his awakening through ping pong and adolescence through to leaving home.”

Leeds-born actor Elliot Levey says he found his alter ego in Ollie when he first read the novel in 1999. “I fell in love, someone had written my life! Rereading it now, significantly older, I realised what I once thought was a coming-of-age story is actually a mid-life crisis story dressed up as a coming-of-age story. It’s about a man who’s spent his life rejecting the world he came from. Then he goes back home and suddenly realises all his life he’s been sitting on a rich seam of joy and love and something he’s always been searching for.”

In the book, narrator Ollie takes readers into his confidence. “Jacobson is such a nimble writer,” says Bent. “He suddenly goes from being light comedic to quite serious. It’s been a challenge to capture that on stage.” So between the slices of action, Bent has Ollie talk to the audience. “He poses a question to his chums in the audience who are our psyche – “Why am I? Where I am?” And he conjures up his mum and dad and people from his past. The thing that cracks it open is the chance of going back, not reliving it as you were, but reliving it as you are.”

Bent and director Jonathan Humphreys are not Jewish. “It means I’m not caught in it. I can look at it from the outside,” says Bent. But Levey is terrified of being too Jewish and turning off an audience. “I don’t want to launder in public. I know Howard has felt that way. So it’s terrific to have two of the prime creative forces in the ring who sense what it’s like when they are being alienated – or more often than not, they are excited and curious by something which most Jews in the room think is commonplace, because we’ve grown up with those sorts of arguments, that sort of language.”

02RET Rehearsal The Might Walzer Tracy-Ann Oberman (Sadie Walzer) photo Jonathan Keenan

Part of that language is the Yiddish that peppers the novel. “We’ve kept some in and removed other bits. This was a note from Howard actually – he was keen for it not to become stereotypical,” says Bent. “I don’t mind words I don’t know coming up because I get the meaning from the context. But it’s a balancing act. The characters speak with Manchester accents, then constantly speak with Yiddishisms. They slip in and out of them. It’s like the two cultures coming together.”

The almost entirely Jewish cast includes Tracy-Ann Oberman as matriarch Sadie and Jonathan Tafler as dad Joel, and some actors actually from the North West, so those accents should be authentic. “There’s a surfeit of Jews in the cast,” laughs Levey. ”One of the things that makes that joyous, is that you are not the ‘Jew in the room’. Because it’s about a Jewish family, and most of the characters are Jews, it makes you free. It’s about growing up, about mid-life, not about Jews.”

Half the cast of ten play Oliver’s Maccabi teammates, table-tennis nerds to a man, as Levey says, “these utter nerds playing the nerdiest of nerdy sports. The upper echelons of table tennis were Mittel and Eastern European Jews, Hungarians, Czechs. Howard said that in the 1950s, there were not many Jewish sporting heroes and suddenly there were these guys with slicked back hair, baggy trousers, looking great and these nerdy Jewish kids could identify with them.”

So will we see the strokes, hear the sound of bat on ball? The cast is being coached by David Hulme, Stockport Federation’s Head Coach and Levey hints that there might be a game at the end. “We’ve got a table tennis table in the rehearsal room, we’re playing nonstop. We’ve set up a little tournament. There are going to be tables outside the theatre,” he says.

I ask the duo about the lusty adolescent desires depicted in the book: Oliver drools after gorgeous blonde table tennis player Lorna Peachley. Is the play suitable for today’s 13-year-olds?

Levey, who has three sons around that age, is confident it is. “My youngest is 10 and this is perfect for him, partly because it looks at what it was to be a kid at a time perceived to be more innocent. And [it shows] what happens to young boys when sex is repressed… it becomes something that fuels his ping pong.”

Finally what does Jacobson think of it? “When I began the adaptation, I deliberately didn’t meet Howard,” says Bent. I left it till after he’d read the first draft. He had a few suggestions which were good, and I incorporated them. He came to the first day of rehearsal and the read through. He was quite pleased, I think.”

By Judi Herman

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

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

Read our review of The Mighty Walzer and listen to our podcast with table tennis champion Jeff Ingber.