Protest Song

Tim Price
We Light Up The House
Arcola Theatre, London

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David Nellist as Danny Credit: Rob Greig
David Nellist as Danny Credit: Rob Greig
David Nellist as Danny Credit: Rob Greig

The 2011–2012 Occupy London protest movement set up camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral after their earlier target of the nearby London Stock Exchange was blocked.

The way these events pulled homeless people into their activity inspired Tim Price’s play Protest Song about the character Danny finding his lonely, rough sleeping life is changed by the arrival of a political activist community.

We first meet Danny when he rises from his audience seat carrying his backpack and sleeping bag in the glare of the house lights. Those lights remain on for most of the short performance in which Danny’s monologue takes us through his unexpected encounter with the encampment.

He is initially irritated by the protesters but is gradually drawn into their company, first by the unexpected free food that he tells us had him “eating like an oligarch every day”. Washing some pots then led him to become part of the kitchen crew, stacking the food supplies and helping to prepare meals. He is particularly proud of the way he arranged the cans.

A former metal worker whose marriage broke down, he tells us of the isolation and loneliness that was gradually being chipped away.

He gets to know and like a number of the protesters but steers clear of the politics till, one day, he is encouraged to attend an occupation assembly and impulsively makes an angry speech about the direction the protesters should take. He is amazed to find everyone agrees.

However, the camp was never intended to be permanent, and Danny finds its ending particularity difficult. Back among the rough sleepers, he longs for company. He bitterly tells us that “Occupy screwed my life up. It could have given me hope.”

David Nellist, as Danny, directed by Sarah Bedi, gives a generally upbeat, engaging performance that occasionally directly interacts with the audience. At one point, he has them joining him in singing his political variation of "The Twelve Days of Christmas".

The Guardian reports that 1,286 people in the UK experiencing homelessness died in 2021. Homeless charities warn that the number of people sleeping rough or staying in temporary accommodation has been steadily increasing. The percentage of listed rental property in London that was affordable under the London Housing Allowance for the year ending January 2022 fell to 8.8%. Since then, rents have skyrocketed.

Surely it is not beyond the imagination and capacity of the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, with over a quarter of a million officially empty properties and possibly thousands of mansions, to find accommodation for its population.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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