FringeReview UK 2023
Go to sleep alone and wake up with thousands. Tim Price’s Protest Song performed by David Nellist and directed by Sarah Bedi is a howl set 12 years ago, amplified by everything since.
Nellist’s performance is so titanic, layered and tumultuous that you emerge feeling you’re not so much immersed in epic theatre, but beaten over the head with it. Or doused with a libation of lager on a cold night. As a chilly wake-up it can’t be bettered.
Tim Price’s magnificent one-man play, viscerally lived through by Nellist, reminds us – yells at us – how much we’re all connected, and unless we stand together, how much we lose.
Written by Tim Price and performed by David Nellist, directed by Sarah Bedi, Lighting Designer, Sarah Bedi, Set and Costume Designer Ruth Badila, Producer Sarah Weatherall
Till January 6th
Go to sleep alone and wake up with thousands. Tim Price’s Protest Song performed by David Nellist and directed by Sarah Bedi in Arcola’s Studio 2, is a howl set 12 years ago, amplified by everything since.
Nellist whispers onstage then explodes as Danny, Newcastle metal-sheet-cutter and cook who’s lost family and home city through alcoholism has fetched up on the steps of St Paul’s. In the middle of Occupy 2011. Occupy earns as many F and C expletives as an hour can well, occupy. Not only that, you’re enjoined to chorus those words with him. Quite often. People laugh uncontrollably, and join in.
Danny’s story isn’t threaded so much as occasionally erupts through this hour-long odyssey: also a defining moment for the Left and democracy.
Price’s set (set, lighting, props aren’t credited so must be his) is diminutive. An angled Ruth Badila’s set is diminutive and her costumes a mix of smeared denim and desperate Christmas tat. An angled chipboard rectangle is poised to slip down behind a central plinth: perhaps failing banks, or democracy. There’s a box with Christmas gear, a can Nellist holds virtually throughout. Bedi’s lighting mixes chilly dawns with noon-glared protests and evening vigils. They’re all that’s needed in this diminutive studio; the audience intimately arrayed in a horseshoe as usual here.
Initially hostile to middle-class encampments, Danny is first invited to eat, then drawn to help in the kitchens, chopping carrots. He’s then outraged by the lack of order and imposes resource-shelving, standing for the empty shelves that have been his life: a poignant metaphor. He gains expertise in preparing dishes including okra and pok-choi.
But Danny’s gradually draw in to participate in debates. More and more he realises he and the protests about Egypt, the banks, oil and terminally late capitalism are connected. That everyone here including himself has been affected, even part-destroyed by them. It’s Austerity after all, losing jobs and homes has just kicked in; and never gone away.
Soon he’s leading a debate. And finally, giddyingly, proposes a motion that’s – uniquely – carried unanimously. “Danny from the kitchen” has an identity.
But Danny’s old comrades haunt the corners. Rough sleepers like himself are still excluded from the warm glow. If we’re all connected, Danny reasons, he’s not hopped over the defining middle-class fence to leave others behind him. Middle-class people don’t see it that way. The very people – bar one – who’ve accepted him show how their own class prejudice fuels rejection, barriers, everything Occupy is nominally against.
It’s all about tone and nuance though. Danny needs that warm glow to literally embrace those rough sleepers even Occupy’s forgotten. He decides on something drastic he’s never done before. There’s consequences. Danny, who can’t reason calmly, makes a defining gesture. And it isn’t pretty.
As a gesture of abasement and anger, Nellist tips the remainder of a lager can over his head. It’s a fierce baptismal moment yards from a baptismal font, but also primed for rejection.
This isn’t to suggest Price’s work is miserable. It’s exhilarating in its energy and defiance, no more joyously when out of his tiny box Nellist dons Christmas Santa hat, throws baubles around and gets everyone to sing along his ferociously repurposed Twelve Days of Christmas. Danny’s favourite about Boris (the five moment) might be unrepeatable. The subsequent countdown – “four failing banks, three student loans, two racist cops and a vote in a de-moc-racy!” lends a flavour.
Though key moments that thrust Danny here are touched on, Protest Song isn’t in a sense about Danny at all: it’s about Danny’s commonality, the thinnest of circumstantial glitches that thrusts him onto cold steps, and us watching him, maybe once as a fellow-protester – though as he points out to the many younger audience-members: “You were probably too young to remember it.” Political memory’s a sobering thing
Though Occupy seemed defeated, it’s spawned not only a permanent younger activism focused – but not caused by – the Corbyn moment and the continual left pressure of many younger people up to and including the recent 800,000-strong London Gaza protests.
Price’s last line is devastating because it stands for all such political movements to date since 2011: “Fuck you Occupy. You gave me hope.” But Danny’s cry is primal, devastating, unanswerable. Nellist’s performance is so titanic, layered and tumultuous that you emerge feeling you’re not so much immersed in epic theatre, but beaten over the head with it. Or doused with a libation of lager on a cold night. As a chilly wake-up it can’t be bettered.
Appropriately Protest Song ends on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas. You should find out what Price does with that. And Nellist has just cycled from Hackney to Newcastle in support of the Newcastle Foodbank.
Has anything changed? Except the right to protest, given recent legislation. Price’s magnificent one-man play, viscerally lived through by Nellist, reminds us – yells at us – how much we’re all connected, and unless we stand together, how much we lose.