Protest review – schoolgirls unite with the power of dissent

Hannah Lavery constructs her play from simple sentences. Her language is clear and direct. Each line builds on the last, with primary-school economy. At first, the picture she paints is unremarkable. It is all relay races, bird watching and maths classes. We hear about grandmas, fathers and big brothers. It is as familiar as the monkey bars on Amy Jane Cook’s pastel-coloured set with its pleasing geometric shapes.

Kirsty MacLaren in Protest.
Excellently played … Kirsty MacLaren as Alice in Protest. Photograph: Oluwatosin Daniju

In interlinking monologues, we meet Alice (Kirsty MacLaren), determined to triumph in the school sports day; Jade (Tamara Fairbairn), certain her family history can enrich the curriculum; and Chloe (Esmé Kingdom), wishing she could connect with people as well as she can the environment. Excellently played, they are eager to please, prone to extravagant bursts of energy and, beneath it all, vexed about a world that is not quite right.

Backed by Northern Stage, Fuel, Imaginate and the National Theatre of Scotland, Natalie Ibu’s energetic production has the innocuous air of the playground. Aimed at 8–13 year olds, it initially seems to be more about the excitement of learning than the trauma of high-stakes drama.

Yet the more Lavery draws us in, the more the picture of innocent youth fractures. Could that be racist graffiti newly painted on Jade’s way to school? Did someone really dump a mattress in Chloe’s treasured woods? And how is it the boys always get chosen for the team when everyone knows Alice is the fastest?

Like the “brittle welcome” that met Jade’s great grandmother and her “friends from the empire” during the war, the security of these girls is provisional. But, asks Lavery, what if they resisted? What if, with their chalk marks, posters and passions, they made a stand for feminism, inclusivity and the climate? What if their small changes could become big changes?

As she asks those questions, and as the answers come into focus, so the structure of Protest shifts. No longer is this a play about solo turns, lone voices searching for confirmation. Now it is about collective action and the power of a united front. The girls come together and, in a breathtaking moment, the whole audience rises to assert its communal will.

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