RUMBLE! – Theatre Review

RUMBLE! takes its name from the rumble in the jungle – the 1974 fight that cemented Muhammad Ali as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Against all the odds, he defeated George Foreman in an epic fight in Zaire.

Using the fight as its theme, Rumble! is set in the harsh post financial crisis world of 2009 – geographically,  London’s Canary Wharf. It pits plucky and clever Alisha Harper-Gill (the play’s Muhammad Ali) against her male employers who are up to no good feathering their nests – and much more besides. They’re dreadful human beings: to a man, they’re sexist, chauvinistic, racist and money-grabbing. There is only one good egg amongst them. 

From the start, Alisha (Claire-Monique Martin) is up against it as she is undermined and humiliated by her work colleague Peter (Richard Houghton-Evans) in a pitch to win a deal to build a stadium in Qatar. She is then put on a route to dismissal as a clutch of accusations are made against her – mostly by Peter who thinks he is God’s gift to women (he’s not). The only thing he is good at is delivering cringe making double entendres to women he fancies (of course, he’s married). He’s also a serial liar. 

The directors of Devereux are determined to force her to resign – for reasons that come clear in the last segment of the play – but they’ve more than found their match in Alisha.

She runs rings round them.  It’s joyous to watch although the language some of her antagonists use against her is horrible. ‘I’d still give her one,’ says Peter. Castration would be preferable.

Of the snarling directors  pitted against her, the venerable  Rupert (Ian Recordon) plays good cop most of the time although an outrageous outburst at the end sours that view. Nigel (Christopher Lloyd James) rages like an active volcano (an anger management course would do him a world of good). Testosterone overload. 

Ian  (Will Forester) sits somewhere in the middle.  As for Peter, he digs himself further and further into a hole as his lies are exposed by Alisha who has done her homework on him. How she makes them all squirm and squeal like vermin caught in a trap, Peter in particular.  Corporate death by a thousand cuts. It makes for fun viewing. 

Martin and Houghton-Evans excel as adversaries Alisha and Peter. Martin’s Alisha is calmness personified. Cool as a cucumber in a crisis – or as Nigel says in a rare moment of lucidity: ‘She’s the one with the balls.’ Houghton-Evans’s Peter is an oily and offensive character who has been corrupted by money.  

There are also some nice cameos along the way. Roselle Hirst’s Lydia, who has been lined up by Peter (for all the wrong reasons) to replace Alisha, is as brassy as brassiness comes.  Lydia, chewing gum, strides around the office demanding attention, and asking whether anyone has seen her phone. Oh what texts and pictures that phone holds.  Hirst’s Lydia is magnificently over the top with some wonderful put downs. ‘McDonald’s are recruiting,’ she says as Alisha awaits yet another disciplinary meeting..

 Natalia (Katie Cannon), the bank clerk who is chatted up by Peter, is far more than she seems while at the death Mr Devereux (Lucien Morgan) proves a shrewd judge of the people he employs. 

And of course, we mustn’t forget Lloyd James’s ranting Nigel – I wouldn’t get in a lift with him. 

This busy, bustling play is written by Yasir Senna who wrote the acclaimed She Wears Scented Rose (see Closeup Culture’s past review on this play)  

Although highlighting the common workplace scandals that are bullying, sexism and victimisation (all still prevalent today), Senna manages to do it by lacing the play with huge dollops of humour. The description of Peter’s unusual coital response is particularly amusing – as is his preferred attire when making love. We also get to know whether Lydia is a natural blond or not.

Miraculously, he also pulls it off in the confined space that the Drayton Arms Theatre provides. Short snappy scenes ensures the play has a momentum which provides the perfect backdrop to Alisha’s defenestration of her colleagues. 

The play, produced by Rebecca Lyon, has been adapted in response to casting issues. The result is that Alisha’s husband Dave is spoken to rather than present with associate director Veronica Sarno playing Carla – Alisha’s cousin – to fill the gaps left in the script by Dave being written out (the actor due to play him has Covid). Will  Forester was a last minute stand in for Ian and gives a remarkably assured performance. 

Rumble! is one and a half hours of enjoyable theatre with a thrilling and apt soundtrack (the Eurythmics’s and Aretha Franklin’s  Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves  provides a thrilling introduction to the second act). It’s punchy and hard hitting, but humorous at the same time. It runs at the Drayton Arms (Chelsea, London) until December 4. Box clever and get yourself a ticket.

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