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Review - Protest Song

Arcola Theatre

Playing until 6th January 2024

Review {AD-PR Invite}

Based on the story of Jimmy McMahon in the Occupy London movement in 2011, Protest Song follows a rough sleeper, Danny (David Nellist), as thousands of people landed on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral one day, his regular sleeping spot. Initially outraged and accompanied by frequent outbursts of curses, Danny came to appreciate the human interaction through this experience.

Following a hurricane of events including addiction and family breakdown, Danny is forced to live on the streets and have done so for many years. He learned to adapt his demeanours at different times of the day to best appeal to passers-by, but irrespective of his strategy, he would keep his distance as most people would not want to touch him. There is that deep sadness in those words, he looks at various audiences and asked whether they would touch him, all the while waiting for the inevitable silence until someone says yes. This is a particularly moving element, injecting humanity into the performance through this brief but significant step for Danny, with Nellist shedding a tear through what most people would take for granted.

Danny is clear from the very beginning that he isn’t a protester and is merely swept up by the movement, but he continues to live amidst the protesters and help out in the kitchen. This provides him with the reason to be part of something, integrated within a group and for the first time in a very long time, that he has something to contribute. This is one of the strengths of the play, its genuineness and Danny’s vulnerability. Referencing a broken piano in the midst of the movement, which is a nuisance to everybody until somebody comes and adapt their playing to the unique offerings of the instrument. This is likely an analogy that Danny too has something to offer and all he needs is an opportunity to show what he can do.

With the exception of the handshake described earlier, the other audience participations have not quite worked so well. This is particularly the case at the beginning when the audience is asked to say their phone number as Danny types them into his phone, after which, the phone is passed around and the audience is asked to type their numbers in themselves. This was stalled with the first audience as they did not know what to do with this scenario and how this fits in with the rest of the play.

With the exception of small changes in the brightness of the lighting and movements of some props, there isn’t much interaction between the actor and everything else around him on stage. Although not clear whether this is deliberate and what kind of effect this is supposed to create, the centre piece of the stage is barely used in the entire show. I suspect that if this is completely removed, it may not have any direct impact of the play.

Left open to interpretation, Danny’s story continues even after the Occupy movement comes to an end. He continues to seek that human touch that he so desperately craves and finding the opportunity to offer himself. This is a thought-provoking story highlighting the disconnection between what the society thinks rough sleepers need and what they themselves want.


Writer: Tim Price

Director: Sarah Bedi

Designer: Ruth Badila

Producer: Sarah Weatherall

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