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Protest Song | Arcola Theatre

Written by Tim Price and Directed by Sarah Bedi, Protest Song is a strong one man show that is centered around the 2011 Occupy Movement from the perspective of Danny, a rough sleeper and chef. Through this, the show becomes an intelligent exploration at the tougher side of humanity, and it's consequences. 

Danny, portrayed by David Nellist, starts the show amongst the audience, in a bewildering but brilliant introduction that instantly pulls the audience into the protest. Nellist becomes Danny, living a rough life, staggering around with a crushed beer can, foul language, and a raging voice yet with a touch of delicacy. Sensitive to the demographic being represented, the show is confrontational in questioning the audience about their habits and attitudes, and the spotlight shifts from just the movement on stage, to a change in the audience.  

The dialogues are constant, each line calculated, despite it appearing to be shallow on a surface level. Whilst we aren't given Danny's backstory directly, we're able to piece together who he is by his observations, judgements and reactions to others around him. Occasionally it can be a little hard to follow the exact words, but you never actually feel lost, especially given the emotive body language. However, at times the intense of Nellist's passionate and emotional performance can overshadow the dialogues being spoken.

The script cleverly steers clear from preaching at the audience, or even having Danny present his experiences with us. Instead we feel as though we're also intruders, watching Danny navigate his life, and have been given an exclusive view into his thoughts. 

Whilst the story is emotional at its core, due to the human experience underlying it, it takes a while before we connect emotionally to Danny. However once his own emotional journey takes foreground, we can feel his emotions reflected on us; the pride of getting a job, the warmth of human connection and equality, the loyalty to his friends, the pain of a torn family and the raw pain when all fails. 

The show introduces a bit of comedy with a hilarious, cheeky and inventive alternative version of the Carol "12 Days of Christmas", including the audience to join in the sing along. Its a cheery moment, complete with Christmas tinsel, baubles and a Santa hat, which also makes the impact of the next loss so much harder to process. 

Nellist taps into a raw and almost feral version of himself, reducing the audience to tears with his own tears in a heart breaking moment of being accepted as a person. Contrasting this is the breaking of the bold man, wherein he destroys his possessions, and sobs almost uncontrollably. Nellist gives us a lifetime of suppressed emotions in an hour, and we, the audience, devour it, hanging on and touched by every scene. His ability to switch between the two in a whiplash speed is incomparable and he shines in the role. 

The ending is particularly hauntingly truthful. With a well timed phone call, and switching off of lights, (Ruth Badila) the last flicker of Hope is stolen away, and with it a brighter immediate future for Danny. It was such a stirring and powerful moment, that there was a stunned silence until David Nellist returned to the stage as himself. 

Protest Song is a show that will make you feel, and think. It's constant refusal to conform (through both Danny, and the creative decisive to avoid actually performing on the small stage, but rather around it), rings true to the name. The show may not be riotous call to action, but it's a subtler protest that inspires change and thought. It is currently playing at the Arcola Theatre until 6th January 2024 - for more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | Rob Greig


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