Theatre

Incredible story of how a Big Issue vendor found himself at heart of Occupy protests

Actor David Nellist has spent most of the year playing the lead role in the stage version of I, Daniel Blake but will be telling the remarkable real-life story of Big Issue vendor Jimmy McMahon in Protest Song over Christmas

David Nellist is playing Big Issue vendor Jimmy McMahon in Protest Song

David Nellist is playing Danny, based on Big Issue vendor Jimmy McMahon, in Protest Song. Image: We Light Up The House Theatre

The story of a Big Issue vendor who found himself at the heart of the Occupy movement in London is being immortalised in a play over Christmas.

Protest Song, written by playwright Tim Price, will be showing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, East London, from 12 December and running until the new year.

The solo play tells the story of Danny, played by I, Daniel Blake stage actor David Nellist, who has been sleeping rough on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral for several years before waking up one morning to find a canvas city of tents surrounding him.

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The improbable tale is based on the remarkable real-life story of late Big Issue vendor Jimmy McMahon, who was embraced by the community that sprung up opposite the cathedral during the 2011 protest.

Speaking to Big Issue, Nellist says he was inspired to tell Jimmy’s tale after seeing the play almost a decade ago in its initial run with Rhys Ifans in the starring role.

“Everything I’ve read about him, he looks like he has the sort of chutzpah, the charm to deal with everything that was thrown at him. That’s what I like about him,” says Nellist. “There’s a real intelligence and emotional intelligence about him. He’s street smart but give him a chance and he’s got lots to give to society.”

Big Issue told Jimmy’s incredible story back in 2021 to mark Occupy’s 10-year anniversary.

He worked in the kitchen on the site and played his part in keeping the occupation going as it continued for months.

Jimmy, who died in 2020, even played a bizarre starring role in a bid by protestors to claim ownership of the land at St Paul’s. He went to the Land Registry office in Croydon to get the deeds to the land where St Paul’s sits.

As fellow protestor Stephen Moore put it: “I think it’s only fair and right that someone who has been living on the steps of St Paul’s for 10 years should own it.”

The stunt led to a remarkable photo of Jimmy, stripped to the waist in a Christ-like pose looking every inch the Lord of St Paul’s.

Playwright Price, who wrote for Jodie Whittaker on the 11th series of Doctor Who, previously told Big Issue Jimmy was a fan of the play as well as the opportunity to rub shoulders with big stars after the show. That, too, won Nellist’s approval.

“Rhys Ifans was going out with Anna Friel at the time and Jimmy got her number and the two of them would speak,” he says. “I mean, even as an actor I would balk at asking for an actress’s number, nevermind a big celebrity. Just brilliant. I love that.”

Nellist added: “What I like about it is Tim’s written this guy who’s got experience of homelessness but he’s not wrapped up in cotton wool. He’s a well-rounded character with lots of great point and lots of faults. Often you see something and go, ‘Well that’s nice but you haven’t been brave enough to show him in all his glory.’

“Tim always writes with brilliant humour. All of his plays are very, very political but are also grounded in a lot of humour. If you can mix politics and humour then you’ve got my vote.”

Growing up in Newcastle, Nellist insists “politics and theatre went hand in hand” for him since the start of his career.

This year has seen him step into the shoes of people at the sharp end of poverty.

He started preparing for Protest Song just days after wrapping up his nationwide run on the stage adaption of Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake.

In the face of a cost of living crisis which has seen food banks facing surging demand and homelessness also rise, Nellist says he feels compelled to play these roles. Particularly when politics brings these issues to the fore.

“I think the story needs to be told,” says Nellist. “Every single place we toured I, Daniel Blake: numerous food banks and people desperate to come up to us in the bar or afterwards in the Q&A just to tell us their stories. So you just feel a real responsibility to get these stories out to get people talking.

“We were talking a couple of weeks ago about how do we keep the relevance? Then Suella Braverman says that about homelessness is a lifestyle choice. You’re like, ‘Oh thanks for that bit of publicity’. It feels like, strangely, it is the right time to do this because it’s back on people’s minds. Even people on the right side of the Conservative Party would say that’s a step too far.”

It’s not only treading the boards where the Nellist has seen the realities of poverty.

He volunteered at his local food bank in Hackney during the pandemic and spent time in Newcastle West End food bank to prepare for his I, Daniel Blake role.

The experience moved him so much that he completed a week-long charity bike ride between the two locations earlier this year, raising £10,200 for the Newcastle food bank.

He’s also seen the anger up close.

“This guy stood up in Birmingham and said one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard,” Nellist says. “He stood up and shouted when Boris was on: ‘You killed my wife!’ This is a piece of theatre and this guy is just not able to contain himself.

“We didn’t get chance to speak to him afterwards and he might have though that annoyed us, but we were like: he was our hero.

“I think because we are coming up to a general election next year, with these issues people are like: ‘We’re not going to let you get away with this stuff.’

“You talk about food banks and at the time when the I, Daniel Blake film came out in 2016 there was one food bank in central Newcastle, now there’s seven. What we would say in the Q&A is regardless of what persuasion you are politically, there’s no party talking about ending food banks. It’s become normalised.”

Now, Protest Song will give Nellist an insight into what it’s like to be a Big Issue vendor at Christmas – albeit as part of a stage show.

“I was reading about The Big Issue vendors being able to take card payments and all that and the big picture is that they shouldn’t have to exist at all,” he says.

“We were doing some photos the other day outside St Paul’s and there was a guy there selling The Big Issue and we were talking to him for half an hour or so. He was brilliant, talking about different times of the year. It’s all smart with the people you meet and talk to because you’re just observing all the time, you’re seeing all of humanity in front of you.”

Protest Song will be showing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney from 12-23 December 2023 and 3-6 January 2024

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