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Theatre review: Protest Song (Arcola, London E8)

22 December 2023

Susan Gray reviews a play that looks back to the Occupy protest

Rob Greig

David Nellist as Danny, the rough-sleeper in Protest Song

David Nellist as Danny, the rough-sleeper in Protest Song

PROTEST SONG is a reflection on the Occupy movement’s time outside St Paul’s Cathedral in December 2011, through the eyes of Danny, inspired by the rough-sleeper Jimmy McMahon, who slept in the cathedral doorway for seven years.

Powerfully played by David Nellist, Danny leaps out of the front row stalls, as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” booms, asking audience members for “a quid”. Obliged, Danny upsells to £3.20, the amount that he needs. Next, he solicits phone numbers, tapped into his ancient mobile. The Nokia tune’s nostalgic notes punctuate the drama.

Danny is a mercurial character, beginning upbeat at the prospect of a bed for the night via “the Pathway”, then full of angry despair when a missed call scuppers his chances. “I’ve done life skills, relationships, detox,” — waves can of lager — “the works. Last time I did the Pathway, I didn’t get to the phone test, Occupy messed it up.” But the disruption to the street rhythms of his life was not solely due to the protesters. “It wasn’t just Occupy’s fault, it was St Paul’s. Jesus never closed the doors. . . The church has closed its doors, it won’t let Danny in.”

In contrast, Occupy embraced the Big Issue seller. He progressed from “eating like an oligarch” in the free canteen to helping in the kitchen. When journalists asked him why he was here, he replied: “I’m just chopping the carrots. I’m lonely. I like the routine.”

Through Tim Price’s skilful writing, Danny’s monologue gives glimpses of the people at the heart of Occupy: Wooki, Hal, Ali, Dev, and Poncho Carol. With Wooki, Danny learns to cook okra, pak choi, and mung beans. Ali reveals why she changed her name: “Ali is my activist name. Lucy is a victim.” Activism also gave Danny a new identity. “I’m Danny from the kitchen,” he says, extending his hand, and then, remembering, sadly withdraws it.

The arrival of Danny’s street friends the Brew Crew, and a cat-on-a-string mistaking a chopping board for a litter tray, marks the beginning of Danny’s marginalisation within Occupy, as his two worlds collide. The designer Ruth Badila’s spare set, of oversized door with wonky architrave, echoes Danny’s conclusion that a “bedsit in Stoke Newington” is not the answer. “I need reminding I have something to offer. I don’t need a bedsit. I need someone to talk to.”

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is the titular protest song, this salty adaptation unlikely to be sung with the same gusto in Chequers as it was in Hackney.

Protest Song runs at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8, until 6 January. Phone 020 7503 1646. www.arcolatheatre.com

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