The Mighty

Howard Jacobson’s hilarious coming-of-age novel about growing up in Jewish Manchester, The Mighty Walzer, makes its stage debut, writes Kevin Bourke

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Award-winning comic writer Howard Jacobson, who was born and brought up in Prestwich, poignantly and hilariously revisited the Jewish Manchester of his youth in his 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer. Now this story of shy and bookish adolescent Oliver Walzer, who finds out he’s a whizz at ping-pong at much the same time as he discovers girls, has been turned into a stage play with its world premiere at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

The autobiographical parallels, Jacobson agrees, even extend to the way Oliver plays his first games of table tennis using a leatherette-covered book as a bat. The writer recalls being particularly keen on an edition of Wuthering Heights, “because the book had an uneven surface, so the ball would come off at all sorts of strange angles. But why it was that every Jewish boy growing up in Manchester in the 1950s played table tennis with some degree of competence I can’t explain…”

Director Jonathan Humphreys, who brought the book to the attention of the Exchange, describes its adaptation by Simon Bent as a “deeply eccentric and highly theatrical comedy about the savage reality of adolescence, sex and ping-pong”.
Despite its autobiographical nature, Bent says he deliberately didn’t meet Jacobson until he had completed the first draft. “He had a few suggestions but he’s been very good, and supportive, at realising that a play isn’t the same thing as the book.

“One of the things that really appealed to me about writing the adaptation was that, although it’s a fiction based on Howard’s own life, it’s also an attempt to capture a time and a community that flourished 40 or 50 years ago and is now almost completely lost in time.”

Any adaptation, he feels, has to be as much in the spirit of the book as possible but he says it doesn’t do to try to superimpose your story on top of that of its writer. “I focused on the life of the family, which was so vibrant and colourful but of a sort you don’t often see on stage.”

Unlike Bent, actor Elliot Levey, who plays Oliver, was very familiar with the original book.
“I had read Howard’s debut novel Coming From Behind when I was a student and thought this was someone talking my language,” he recalls. “I’ve been a fan ever since and The Mighty Walzer has been in my top five books since I first read it in 1999. I know the exact date, because I had been given it as a gift and, reading it on the night of the Millennium, I was so engrossed that I was late for the party I was going to.

“But I very rarely go back and re-read books when there are still so many unread books in my own house. Going back and re-reading this, first of all I got a slightly nasty shock that I had aged. So instead of relating to the exploits of the young Oliver Walzer, it was the older character I related to, which made attacking the script much more interesting.”
Levey praises Bent on turning the book into a memory play – a midlife crisis story dressed up as a coming-of-age story, so that it appeals across generations. “It’s kind of important that it’s Simon who has adapted this book too,” says Levey. “Not only because he has such a quirky view of the world but because, as a non-Jew, he has managed to turn a book which could seem parochial and very Jewish into something very universal.”

The Mighty Walzer is at the Royal Exchange until 30 July. For information on supporting events, including an exhibition on growing up in Jewish Manchester, visit

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