To say that Gramophones Theatre have made a show about protest doesn’t quite seem accurate. The Smallest Light is as much about why we don’t stand up for what we care about as why we do, casting off the media myth of apathy to examine the complex web of factors that often prevent us from becoming politically active. There are lots of good reasons not to act, they openly and unapologetically acknowledge. But there are even more good reasons to do something about what makes us angry.
The first thing to note is that Gramophones Theatre do not come from a position of activism. Only one of the company members has any real experience of protesting, while the others represent a range of shifting positions on the spectrum of political involvement. They worry about the world, they get angry, they sign petitions. The structure of the show, however, has forced them to put their dissatisfaction into action, with each of the four women selecting a different cause to devote their energies to. Over the space of an hour, they explore their motivations and report back on the success of their various campaigns.
Due to the nature of the piece, it inevitably has a slightly “show and tell” quality. The women recall the show’s beginnings, talk us through the issues they have chosen to focus on and why, explain why only three of the company members are on stage and the fourth joins the show via video projections. There’s an element of demonstration, in the presenting rather than the political sense, but unlike in Daniel Bye’s How to Occupy an Oil Rig – with which this show shares several similarities – this double function is never really latched upon.
The show is better when diagnosing our difficult relationship with political action that when reporting back on its members’ attempts at protest. The performers capture with compassionate humour the potential embarrassment of the demonstration, in which it can be easy to feel out of place or excluded, while a sequence in which they recite endless to do lists is an effective illustration of how our busy lives are structured to increasingly squeeze out political action. When actually discussing the action they commit to, gaping holes appear; their causes are often under-explained and the anger that drives them never quite achieves the necessary force.
The piece charms, however, with its rough but optimistic gesture of change, reflected in the homemade, well-meaning staging. With bright splashes of colour it cultivates a celebratory atmosphere, cementing the message that protest, though difficult, can also be joyous. This has a problematic aspect, threatening to reduce the complexity of political protest with its almost childlike aesthetic, but it is refreshing to see such a positive treatment of this knotty subject matter. And, despite all its flaws, the final call for change is wildly infectious.