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Protest Song at the Arcola Theatre | Review

On the day I caught this show in the basement space of Hackney’s Arcola Theatre, the opening was dramatically upstaged by a ragged middle-aged man barging his way into the auditorium and half-begging, half-haranguing the audience for money.

Protest Song - Credit R Greig
Protest Song – Credit R Greig.

Full marks for ingenuity, lighting on a huddle of middle-class-ish theatregoers and daring them to abandon their skinflint ways. He was what used to be termed a beggar or, in an earlier time, a sturdy rogue. The cautious correctness of our present age has him down as a rough sleeper.

Rough he certainly looks, but sleeper? Far from it. He’s in off the street and is now striding with a professional palm cupped before the smattering of politely alarmed spectators.

When he says “Give us a quid” a few inches from my face, I find myself doing just that in order to make him go away and let the play start. In this, I’m in a minority of about one to three. Some of the refusniks look as though they might support him if only he had a card-reader.

By now you may have clocked, as the rest of us did, that this was the play, and that his situation, lot, decline, impotent rage were the burden of his song. A largely drunken song, to be sure, but then you couldn’t tell such a man’s story without finding a prominent place for the justly dubbed demon of drink. Alcohol, whether it is the cause, consequence, or both, of such destitution, is a key player in this ironically clear-eyed drama of decline.

You may also have gathered that the actor, David Nellist, is disturbingly convincing, and very possibly still under the (benign) influence of his recent portrayal of another alcoholic in Paul Laverty’s play, I, Daniel Blake.

One of Protest Song’s achievements, a poignant one, is to point up the way in which the leftist international Occupy movement of a decade ago came to overshadow, even obscure, the struggles by and on behalf of rough sleepers. Nowhere was this upstaging more ironic than in the precincts of St. Paul’s Cathedral; the air reeling with revolutionary slogans, the ground shedding its sleepers by the day.

Like Nellist’s performance, Tim Price’s script has a gloriously seedy swagger about it; nowhere more so than when our man comes up with an alternative version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, belted out without undue reverence for pitch or rhythm, but bearing all the red-eyed passion of an English Shane MacGowan: “Twelve councils cutting, eleven bubbles bursting…four bailed-out banks, three student riots, two racist cops and a vote in a democraceee!

An hour in the company of a homeless drunk may sound like a tall order, but in the handling this author and this actor, it is no such thing; rather, a cocktail of truths too hard to swallow without a grimace, yet still worth the effort.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Inspired by the true story of Jimmy McMahon, the Big Issue seller who became an icon of hope in the Occupy London movement, Protest Song tells the story of rough sleeper, Danny, who in the lead up to Christmas wakes up to find himself surrounded by a canvas city of protesters on his patch

Tim Price’s funny, savage solo play exploring activism and hierarchy inspired by the true story of a homeless man who became an icon of the Occupy London protests

David Nellist

Protest Song
Written by Tim Price | Directed by Sarah Bedi | Performed by David Nellist

Listings information
12 – 23 December 2023, 3 – 6 January 2024
Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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