Writer: Howard Jacobson
Adaptor: Simon Bent
Director: Jonathan Humphreys
Reviewer: Iain Sykes
The Mighty Walzer, Howard Jacobson’s 1999 novel about a Jewish boy growing up in a North Manchester world of lust and table tennis, is finally brought to the stage for its world premiere in Simon Bent’s adaptation at the Royal Exchange.
Living with his flamboyant big dreaming but low achieving father and his very much more reserved mother have turned Oliver Walzer into an introverted quiet boy. A boy who plays ping pong by himself against the wall with a copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a bat and who indulges himself with reading material of a rather different kind when locked behind the toilet door. Until his father forces him to the local social club where he discovers that he’s a natural on a real table tennis table, and the world of local table tennis leagues opens up to him.
Told in what is very much a narrative style by Oliver Walzer (Elliot Levey), the play retains some of the warm and quirky feel. Walzer is an adult looking back on episodes in his youth and Levey plays him as an adult throughout, even in his dealings with his parents and his friends in the social club. Levey’s Walzer has an easy charm about him. Casually sauntering about the stage and conversationally addressing the audience, he is a very easy to watch lead whose presence is never less than welcome. Jonathan Tafler and Tracy-Ann Oberman have a ball as Oliver’s ever-battling parents struggling to control their son in their very different ways. Tafler, loud and brash as the disorganised trader with big ideas and a soft spot for soft toys, and Oberman sporting a red sixties style hairdo, the sensible to the point of negativity mother with a quick and well delivered line in put-downs. A strong cast of supporting characters help bring the Walzer memories to life, not least David Crellin’s creepy ex-ping pong champion, Gershom Finkel and Joe Coen’s Sheeny Waxman, a likeable big brother figure to Walzer’s gaucheness. Lily Sacofsky also shines as Walzer’s love interest as his teenage hormones begin to take hold.
But while The Mighty Walzer does capture quite a bit of the warmth and humour of the novel, Simon Bent’s adaptation, in relying so heavily on the narrative, never seems to lift itself far enough from its source to convince that we are watching anything other than a book on stage, and does feel rather limited in its storytelling scope. It becomes a gentle evening’s entertainment, somewhat lacking in the drama that Walzer’s tale of adolescent lust and ping pong deserves. In table tennis terms, the play is still a winning shot, but from a slight mis-hit that clips the net on the way, rather than a spectacular backhand.
Runs until 30July, 2016 | Photo: Jonathan Keenan