By Jacqueline Grima
At the end of June, the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester will be showing a production of The Mighty Walzer, adapted for the stage by screenwriter Simon Brent. The play stars Elliot Levey as Oliver Walzer, a Jewish man looking back on his life as a young and somewhat shy table tennis enthusiast, trying to find his place in 1950s Jewish Manchester. After joining the Avika Social Club table tennis team, Oliver begins to find his worth under the coaching of Sheeny Waxman. He is, however, soon distracted by the prospect of romance and dreams of going to Cambridge. The play also stars Tracy-Ann Oberman, formerly of EastEnders, as Oliver’s mother.
Humanity Hallows recently caught up with Elliot to find out a bit more.
Tell us about the play.
The Mighty Walzer is an adaptation of the 1999 novel by Howard Jacobson which is one of my top five books of all time. I read it in Greece in 1999; it was the millennium New Year’s Eve and I was late for the party I was going to because I wanted to finish it. I loved it!
When I heard that the Royal Exchange was putting on an adaptation of the play, I jumped at the chance to play Oliver. I’d worked with Simon Brent before and he has a really left-field, off-centre, quirky approach to writing and to life. Jacobson and Brent make the perfect marriage. What Simon brings to the play is an English sensibility, a non-Jewish sensibility. He makes it universal. When you come from a minority, you worry that people won’t get it. What you see as mundane and prosaic, they see as exotic.
So, do you think the play will appeal to a contemporary, perhaps non-Jewish, audience?
I think so because both the play and the book are so truthfully written, so authentic. Howard Jacobson was once tutored by FR Leavis and Leavis is all about authenticity. Writers often get told to write what they know. I think Howard Jacobson probably took that advice and began to explore what he had previously run away from, pushed away. He probably thought, “There’s a rich seam that I haven’t mined.” When he realised that, then he became a writer and, then, a great writer.
The Mighty Walzer is a coming-of-age story but it’s a coming-of-age story dressed as a mid-life-crisis story and it could have a disappointing tone to it but we have found out during rehearsals that it doesn’t. The play shows Oliver as an older man but a decision was made in this production to make him a bit younger (I am in my early forties) and, as a result, the audience can see that this man has hope to change – he still has time to find the love of his life, he can still follow his dreams. At the end of the play, he comes to the realisation that, although he can never go back to 1950s Manchester, he still has hope.
You come from quite an eclectic background, born to secular parents but going on to have a strict orthodox education. How much do you identify with the character?
I identify with him massively. I get the northern thing, I get the northern-Jewish thing. I really get the running away from your background thing, having run away myself.
Since becoming a father, I have often thought that it might now be nice to embrace things I once found repulsive but now find charming.
Do you think young people will identify with Oliver?
I think it’s the kind of play that strikes people at any age. I was in my early twenties when I first read it. We first meet Oliver when he is about eleven and follow him through adolescence to when he is about to go to university, that wonderful moment in life when he is on a precipice, when he is about to launch himself off, and then we see him in the present. The Mighty Walzer has a kind of purity. The book is set at a time when society and, particularly, children, were less sexualised. Of course, people have always had sex but it was in a way that was less exposed. The late-teenagers in the play are talking about stuff that younger kids talk about today. It was a less commercialised world.
So, is the play about nostalgia?
There is a nostalgic element to the whole story but it never gets too sweet, never becomes saccharine.
We are being trained by a fantastic man called David Hulme who is the Head Coach at Stockport Table Tennis Academy. As an actor, you often live in a kind of bubble and it’s so much fun when someone who seems to be from another planet steps into our world. I admit I’m not the greatest at table tennis but, with David’s training, I’m getting better and, in between rehearsals, we’ve got a tournament going with a sweepstake.
The Mighty Walzer runs from 30th June to 30th July. For tickets and more information, see the Royal Exchange website.
The play is also accompanied by a series of guided walking tours which begin at the Manchester Jewish Museum and take visitors through the city’s Jewish quarter. For more information and to book, click here.
Also, on Monday 11th July, the book’s author Howard Jacobson will be appearing at the theatre to talk about the novel’s autobiographical element. To book for this event, click here.