“We tried to make it look like your mum putting on a celebratory show in her living room cabinet,” says Alexandra Cropper, curator of Chess in Shorts – Table Tennis and Growing Up in Jewish Manchester. “Photographs are shown in period frames and we borrowed some props from the theatre to give it a sense of homeliness. We even scoured charity shops for the right kind of picture frames.”
This new exhibition from the Manchester Jewish Museum and staged at the city’s Royal Exchange accompanies the theatre’s current production of The Mighty Walzer, an adaptation of the 1999 novel by award-winning author Howard Jacobson. Set in the world of 1950s Jewish Manchester, the play follows the fortunes of a teenager who progresses from backyard ping pong to championship-level table tennis. It explains why, during the 50s, so many British table tennis champions were Jewish (they had risen through the youth clubs of the UK’s major cities).
Jacobson admits that it’s a semi-autobiographical play. As Simon Bent, the playwright, told Northern Soul earlier this week, “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”.
So to summarise: it’s real life events filtered by a novelist, filtered again by a playwright, then interpreted by a director and a cast. It left me wondering, how much of what we see on stage is actually authentic?
Enter the Manchester Jewish Museum which has given the production an added legitimacy and authenticity by putting together a small exhibition of objects, photographs, film and music from the era, relating to the themes in the play. This is the resulting Chess in Shorts – Table Tennis and Growing up in Jewish Manchester. To make it more accessible the museum decided to stage it at the Royal Exchange rather than at the site on Cheetham Hill Road.
“The idea of adding some reality to the play sat quite nicely with us as a museum,” says Cropper.
She’s right. The juxtaposition of real museum objects in display cases alongside a stage show works well. Part of its success is that it doesn’t look like a museum exhibition. Using display cases that were already in situ at the Exchange, the curators have put together a moving display.
Looking at these social history objects and photographs, accompanied by period music, is like stepping back into 1950s Manchester. It’s a great way to get in the mood for the performance or to look at during the interval. Parts of the exhibition are by Jacobson himself. He has written some of the panels which appear along one of the walls of the small display space, off the Exchange’s main atrium.
In recent years, museums have realised that when it comes to writing text to go on public display, they don’t need very much.
Cropper says: “It goes against my curatorial training. I know that less is more and we prefer to use shorter pieces of text usually, but in this case we ended up putting all his words on the wall.”
She’s completely right to do so. I would normally be put off by so much museum text, but when it comes from an award-winning writer, perhaps it doesn’t matter that much. He’s good at telling stories, after all. Plus, it’s been thoughtfully designed so as to make it understandable and digestible.
Jacobson’s words are supported by objects from the museum’s collections, along with items he has loaned out. Look for his original table tennis bat along with his green hardback copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – which he used to play ping pong before he got his first bat.
Some might see this as a niche exhibition. But you don’t need to be a Jewish, ping pong-playing baby boomer to enjoy looking at these objects. There’s a range of material on display, relevant to people from all ages and walks of life. Music, recreation, food, newspaper cuttings and local history are all brought together in at atmospheric exhibition, echoing an era in Manchester’s history.
There’s also a table tennis table for anyone who fancies having a go themselves, and it’s not just for kids.
While the ping pong table in the exhibition was waiting to be installed it was stored at Manchester Jewish Museum. Cropper says that “some of our older volunteers, who remember the time the play is set, have been having a go. And it turns out despite their age, they’ve still got all the trick shots.”
In addition to the exhibition, the museum has created four guided city walks around highlights of 1950s Jewish Manchester, programmed to take place before some of the matinee performances, adding another element to the experience. There’s also a Q&A session with Howard Jacobson on July 11.
Manchester Jewish Museum is part way through applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund for support to expand both its physical building and the public programme. This exhibition is a great example of a museum reaching out to a new community and a new public. From its modest base in an old synagogue near Victoria station, the museum is seeking to grow visitor numbers and its relevance to people’s lives. Taking objects to a theatre for a new audience to see them is a great way to do that.
By Steve Slack
Photos courtesy of the Manchester Jewish Museum
The Mighty Walzer runs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until July 30, 2016 and the exhibition continues until the end of August 2016
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Howard Jacobson, click here