The Mighty Walzer

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05/06/16

Royal Exchange Manchester

It’s entirely unplanned but bumping into Howard Jacobson minutes before the press show of The Mighty Walzer, proves fortuitous. I can’t resist asking him how he feels right now. Excited? Elated? Nervous? He confesses that he doesn’t really know how he feels. Apart from an early read-through by the cast, this is the first time he will be seeing this adaptation of his 1999 novel, a World Premiere at the Royal Exchange. But he tells me, this isn’t really his baby, all credit must go to his collaborator Simon Bent. When I tell him I’m there to review the show, he says he hopes I’ll ‘go easy on it.’

He needn’t have worried. This is a sprightly, occasionally very funny play, set against the austere backdrop of Manchester in the 1950s and as the posters proudly proclaim, it’s ‘a riotous tale of growing up, sex and ping-pong.’ Semi-autobiographical in tone (Jacobson really was a table-tennis aficionado in his youth) it relates how the teenage Oliver Walzer (Elliot Levy) escapes the clutches of his over protective mother, Sadie (Tracey-Ann Oberman) and his market-trader father, Joel (Jonathan Tafler), by joining a local ping-pong team. It turns out that he has a natural flair for the game, one that brings him success in the local leagues and into the orbit of the widely-admired Lorna Peachly (Lily Sacofsky) with whom he embarks on a doomed romance.

If the story is whimsical, it nevertheless delivers an evening of assured entertainment. There are some very funny moments here and the device of having the adult Walzer looking back on events and commenting on them, works an absolute treat (I particularly liked a recurring motif which has him arguing with Sheeny Waxman (Joe Coen) as to whether he was actually present for some of the events in which he repeatedly appears). If there’s a slight criticism of the story, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of progression in there – the second half relates pretty much the same events as the first – but luckily, it’s all done with such sure-footedness, it hardly matters.

Fans of ping pong should make sure they arrive early for the show, because there’s a table set up around the back of the theatre where interested parties can actually play a few games while they’re waiting. There’s even a couple of resident experts on hand to offer tips and advice. I managed to get in a few shots myself and was summarily slaughtered.

The Mighty Walzer is at the Royal Exchange until the 30th of July. It’s well worth a visit.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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