There wasn’t time to take a breath before
Protest Song, by Tim Price, follows Danny (Jack Tivey), a homeless man whose life was turned upside down during the Occupy movement in London in 2011. As protestors pitched up their own tents alongside his, their political optimism and ideologies jar against Danny’s very real situation.
From the off we’re stuck between laughter and tears, as Tivey’s Danny kept us on the edge of any emotion, skilfully toeing the barrier between making us uncomfortable with erratic behaviour, and wanting to understand and relate to him.
You don’t notice how strange it is to have a rough sleeper in the centre of the stage until you see it, because the reality is that the men and women scattered across London’s streets are almost always silent, ignored, and pushed to the back of our minds. Danny doesn’t let us do that. The
From before the show even starts, Danny is in the crowd, chatting away with a beer in hand. When it starts, he asks for a few audience member’s numbers convivially, before moments later panicking when he misplaces his phone
These atmosphere shifts are easy for Tivey, and the interactive nature of much of the show breaks the fourth wall so completely that the audience is almost the supporting cast. But, ultimately, we as an audience are the antagonists as we intrude on Danny’s life. We cannot feasibly help him, so we are left awkwardly snooping into his life.
The staging is simple in the small Camden People’s Theatre, pared back with Danny’s few possessions scattered around cardboard placards proclaiming the death of capitalism. And, it works. While the play was notably performed at the National Theatre, the significantly smaller scale of this venue gives intimacy and realism to the story. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just talking to a rough sleeper on any street.
Sometimes this makes it seem perhaps a bit gratuitous, going to see a show when the reality can be found on most streets. A journalist from the Telegraph noted in his review of the National’s production that “maybe it would be best to cut out the middle-man and simply donate the cost of a ticket to a homeless charity of your choice.”
It feels like a fair criticism, as theatregoers can return to their comfortable lives at the end of the show, but real people, like Price’s character, cannot. However, the Florence Theatre Company has used the show to fundraise for Crisis, both at the end of the play and with efforts outside of the production. It feels a bit like a drop in the ocean when on the way out from the theatre to the tube station you walk past three rough sleepers, but it is an honourable endeavour nonetheless. Maybe it is impossible to avoid this contradiction, an inevitable result of the nature of plays like this, but it forces the harsh reality upon you in the hopes that you might do something to help, that you might change. While the journalist may well think it would be better to donate the cost of the ticket, it is naïve to think people would. Maybe after this performance, they might think twice.
The direction, from Alberto Lais and assistant director Matt Neubauer, has Tivey using the stage, the audience, and the exit all with conviction. The use of light is effective, drawing out certain emotions or parts of the stage. This helps tackle the small stage, using every inch successfully. No moment feels over thought, but simple actions make this performance excel despite the small venue and budget. Only a small hiccup occurred during the performance when the early introduction of music over Danny’s voice seemed to be either a mistake or unfortunately placed – either way, it contrasts with the rest of the meticulous direction.
Jack Tivey is almost flawless, embracing the character so wholly that it’s hard to see where the actor ends, and Danny begins. Tivey’s Welsh accent sometimes slips, it’s few and far between and only slight – but we can forgive him for it. On the whole, he is utterly convincing, and I am sure that his fantastic performance will be one of many.
The intimate stripped back gig, with the gritty and all too real Danny, is how the show should be seen. It leaves you uncomfortable but wanting to know more. And it leaves you feeling like you should do better. If it comes back for another performance, grab tickets if you can.
Image: Tara Rose Photography