Mighty Walzer?

I was slightly sceptical about the Royal Exchange’s decision to programme two book adaptations to conclude the current season, but the Night Watch was a great success; ambitious and thoughtful.  The final play of the season is Simon Bent’s adaptation of Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer, a tale of a shy, Jewish teenager in fifties Manchester who finds and loses his identity in table tennis.

The play follows the story of teenager Oliver Walzer (played convincingly by Elliot Levey), who is on stage for the full two hours.  In many ways it has the feel of a monologue, the rest of the cast of ten creating scenes around specific incidents in Oliver’s early life.  Most involve family, table tennis and girls.  We see how his character is influenced by his family, we see the confusions of teenage lust, and we see the paradox of how people deal with success.  Certainly it’s full of humour, and the lines are delivered with great timing and reflection.  There is good use of unreliable memories, with characters appearing slightly out of sequence in Oliver’s mind, and clever inconsistencies.

But for all its strengths, this production falls short.  I haven’t read the book but the detail within the story feels too complex to distill into a monologue driven play.  There’s not enough drama, and even when there is, Oliver is himself describing what we are already seeing.  In Simon Bent’s adaptation of Elling (a film), the language is subtle and poignant, and you empathise with the characters; I didn’t feel enough for the main characters in this production. And although there are some very effective aspects to the staging (especially the vocal effects for table tennis matches), it lacked the clever stage design of recent Royal Exchange productions.

The Royal Exchange has a tradition of putting on lighter, funnier plays at the end of the spring/summer season, and this is entirely in keeping.  Think Sex, Chips and Rock’n’Roll without the songs.  It is full of humour, and it is an interesting story.  Certainly it is fun to play table tennis in the Great Hall before a production.  But in the end it comes across as inconsequential, and it feels more light entertainment than true drama.

The Mighty Walzer is at the Royal Exchange Manchester until 30 July 2016.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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