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Muhammad Ali and Me review at the Albany, London – ‘a striking coming of age story’

The cast of Muhammed Ali and Me at the Albany, London. Photo: Rajha Shakiry
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Few shows throw as many different ingredients into the mix as Muhammad Ali and Me. Featuring British Sign Language, a cappella singing, magic tricks, audience participation and, of course, boxing, the play is a striking coming of age story about finding one’s identity told in a highly Brechtian manner.

Originally presented at Ovalhouse in 2008, this revival was proposed shortly before Ali’s death earlier this year. Even for anyone entirely ignorant about boxing  (like myself), it’s hard not to be aware that the man they called “The Greatest” was a godlike figure to his acolytes.

The show is based on theatre-maker and academic Mojisola Adebayo’s own childhood and young adulthood. Born to a Nigerian father and Danish mother, left in an insalubrious foster home and bullied at school, it could be a misery memoir but any kind of self pity is swiftly nipped in the bud.

Adebayo is a passionate presence in the dual roles of her younger self and Ali himself. Charlie Folorunsho manages to be more hit than miss in his myriad of supporting roles and  most eye-catching is Jacqui Beckford’s Referee, performed almost entirely in BSL, showcasing the beauty of this method of communication and its similarities with dancing.

Sheron Wray’s energetic but somewhat meandering production could be punchier and condensed into a single round. The episodic structure means that some events get thrown away. Following this short run at the Albany, the production will be touring boxing gyms around the UK, bringing theatre where it’s least expected while hymning this most theatrical of sports.

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Confrontational rendering of a bleak childhood told with warmth and humour