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The Mighty Walzer (Manchester Royal Exchange)

Set in 1950s Manchester, the play follows Oliver who discovers his love for ping pong

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Even amongst the crash and burn of global events, markets on the move, emotions as scratchy as nails down a blackboard, even then, we need stories. Life goes on in all its magnificent dullness: people get born, kids go to school, last breaths are taken. And while it must be a testing time for drama at the moment - on its tiptoes, stretching to compete with reality - being in a theatre lends us these stories for a brief period of clarity so that we can make a path through the noise.

I'm glad that writer Howard Jacobson lent us his story of The Mighty Walzer and even happier that this adaptation by Simon Bent has turned a funny novel into an even funnier play. Oliver Walzer — "part mollusc, part whelk, part adolescent" is Jacobson's alter-ego. He's growing up a shy Jewish boy in '50s Manchester, his ambition tamped down by suffocating parents each dumping their own insecurities onto his sweet head. No wonder he's in his shell looking out, searching for a liberation, which, for the time being, he finds in ping pong.

Elliot Levey as the retrospective, adult Oliver glides effortlessly through his pivotal role, peeling away his layers perfectly, and when he's joined by a superb Tracy-Ann Oberman as his mother Sadie and excellent Jonathan Tafler as his Micawberish father Joel, an electricity streaks through them all and we're faced with all our yesterdays.

James Cotterill's formica table-top stage and ice cream colours suit the mood, while Jonathan Humphreys' production is lively, if a little heavy on the exposition in a few places, but that's only the novel coming through. Indeed, he could have delivered a load of mawkish guff, instead he's given us belly-laughs and a huge sense of collective relief.

We need beautiful stories like The Mighty Walzer to help transform fear and loathing into chortles and snorts, to help us remember that life goes on regardless. And I'm happy to report that when I sneaked a look at Jacobson at the curtain call, his smile was as broad as mine.

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

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