So begins a story of identity and identification, told from the perspective of a young girl taken into care in 1970s London.
This well conceived and realised piece of work, at once subtle and brazen, is best described in terms of montage: it is a fit of melodrama, with dancing, poetry, impressionism, magic, and fully integrated British sign language.
The performances here are enormous and they need be, Adebayo’s text matching any sport in its physical and emotional demands.
An Olympian effort is required of the audience too, and not only because they are called upon to participate; the pace of transition, the punch lines, the dense matrix of allusion and cultural referencing demand close, unwavering attention. Muhammad Ali and Me sets a challenging pace, but there are spoils aplenty for those who can keep up.<
For all the bravado, a tender soul rocks back and forth at the play’s kernel, her knees drawn gingerly to her chin. There is something distinctly schizophrenic about Muhammad Ali and Me, not least in these vicissitudes and excesses.
It is fitting then that the characters more aptly described as ‘roles’ than discrete individuals. In a given sequence, an actor may portray any number of identities only the system itself remains constant, rigid. There is of course the ‘fighter’, an underdog battling oppression; beyond her, there is the ‘man in the corner’, a figure whom for good or bad provides motivates the action. In a sense, this latter figure, this conduit, is an apparition of repressed memory; in him, around him, competing expectations and imperatives intersect and provide an organisational locus for the drama.
We find the themes of domestic and socio-symbolic violence satisfactorily explored without easy resolution or the sacrifice of ambiguity. Beyond the shouting beyond the obvious use of Ali’s life as a situational metaphor for that of this girl ideas are picked up, examined, and seemingly discarded. Sometimes these resonate or later find resonance; sometimes they evaporate without a trace. What persists is a sense of sophistication undiminished in the hullabaloo.
Indeed, it’s a small wonder that the entire production didn’t vibrate its way up the stairs, out of the door and onto the street. But this would be an appropriate ambition, as Muhammad Ali and Me deserves to find a wider audience.