I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Ping-pong around the clock
Tennis may be a fixture of summer TV schedules but this is, I presume, the first time it has taken centre stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Except, it is the table variety which The Mighty Walzer concerns itself with.
The play, a world premiere, is a stage adaptation by Simon Bent. It is based on Man Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson's semi-autobiographical novel. Oliver Walzer (Elliot Levey) is a typical teenager of a writerly type. He is treated like a bouncing ball in arguments between his protective mother and nagging, unfulfilled father.
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Sadie Walzer, Elliot Levey as Oliver, Jonathan Tafler as Joel. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
Despite his impatient fatherly conduct towards Oliver, Joel Walzer (in an animated portrayal by Jonathan Tafler) does, at least, drag his son to the social club, with a home-made bat which 'looks like a frying pan'. The club becomes the launching pad for Oliver's sporting triumphs and romantic entanglements, against the background of anti-semitism and the soundtrack of Bill Haley and His Comets.
Elliot Levey, who is on stage for the whole production, switches dexterously between the role of narrator and re-enactor of key scenes in his rites of passage.
In an interesting spin on the idea of an unreliable narrator, Oliver accuses some of the people who appear in his story of being unreliable protagonists - claiming to have been present at times when Oliver says they had yet to meet.
There are many moments of laugh-out-loud humour, especially in the first half. I particularly enjoyed Joel's anecdote about a relation who failed in his ambition to be a 'midget minstrel' because he grew too tall. Tracey-Ann Oberman, who plays Sadie, Oliver's mother, has terrific comic timing and reminds us that she is a commanding stage, as well as TV, actor.
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Sadie Walzer. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
The second half of the production, moves more overtly into poignant territory, as the simplicity of winning battles of bat and ball gets overshadowed by the conflicting forces of romantic entanglements, family loyalties and even sympathy for long-standing foes.
What does table tennis bring to the theatrical experience? Well, apart from providing metaphors and a focus for the chrysalis of adolescent life, it brings movement as the actors dance around imaginary tables.
Elliot Levey as Oliver Walzer. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
As I haven't read Howard Jacobson's novel, I can't say what passages of descriptive prose the play version of The Mighty Walzer, directed by Jonathan Humphreys, misses out on. However, what is not in doubt is that the Royal Exchange has served up a winning combination of source material and dramatization - a high-class summer read delivered in theatrical form.