Adapted by Dave Johns from the internationally award-winning 2016 film directed by Ken Loach, and written by Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake likely needs no introduction. A tragic fable illustrating the complete ethical bankruptcy of the UK’s social security system, John’s play mirrors the movie but avoids slavish repetition.
The voice of the UK’s political classes, for example, is far more present. Damien Green’s infamous 2016 review of the movie as “a word of fiction” is writ large in projection, whilst his voice is piped in to open the show. Proceedings thereafter are punctuated with further contributions, from David Cameron extolling his ‘Big State’ to Boris Johnson promising a golden age ahead. Presented without comment, it’s down to the audience to decide whether play or politico is more trustworthy.
David Nellist makes a hugely sympathetic Daniel Blake, investing the character with immense charm, and northern sensibilities. He cuts a doughty figure, industrious by nature, a carpenter out of work only on doctor’s orders since a previous heart attack. The skilled hands which have served him well to date, however, prove ill-suited to negotiating the bureaucratic, digitally gated, and out-sourced benefits system.
When he encounters single mother Katie (Bryony Corrigan), and daughter Daisy (Jodie Wild), battling pitiless Jobcentre officers played by Micky Cochrane and Janine Leigh, his righteous anger is inevitable. It’s the beginning of a firm friendship, faltering on Katie’s side, bruised as she is from past betrayal, but as natural as breathing to the communally minded Daniel. Corrigan’s deeply authentic performance is the Ying to Nellist’s Yang, their roles shifting about a complex, meaningful friendship.
Beyond, there’s a tremendous chemistry throughout the show, and not just between the two leads. Kema Sikazwe as China, makes a cheeky, an determinedly ambitious neighbour for Daniel. Trapped in a warehouse on a zero-hours contract, he has every intention of breaking free by any means, but always has time for his man, Dan. Cochrane and Leigh wear many hats, and make a mark with each.
By the end of the first act, Director Mark Calvert has the audience fully invested in Daniel’s fate, appreciating his kindness and can-do work ethic. The dark clouds are gathering, but for now the storm is throwing its spite in Katie’s face, poverty stripping away her dignity and last vestiges of hope. It’s not overblown, or overdone; anyone with the least knowledge of how our country treats its poorest citizens will know this.
Designer Rhys Jarman does particularly well to create an adaptable set which morphs from homestead to office with few moving parts, thanks in no small part to Simisola Majekodunmi’s evocative lighting. There is, in truth, a sense of quality pervading the whole production.
The second act sees Daniel and Katie’s crises reaching boiling point, the inhuman, unanswerable system driving Daniel to spray paint armed protest, and Katie into the sex trade. The subsequent threat of a happy ending should be warning enough of a bittersweet (at best) ending.
Perhaps, however, this theatrical I, Daniel Blake suffers a little as it winds towards he end, catastrophes blooming a little too suddenly to fully break the audience’s hearts. Nevertheless, the quality of performance never flags, nor the sense of a cast, and creative team personally invested in driving home the play’s message. The rank, and avoidable injustice of the conclusion – let me speak plainly – would be sufficient to imperil any self-declaring Tories come curtain down.
Honest, powerful, and full of broken heart, I, Daniel Blake is theatre with bite.
I, Daniel Blake is a tiny dragon Productions and ETT co-production in association with Northern Stage, originally co-produced with Birmingham Rep and Oldham Coliseum
Show Details – Traverse dates
Dates: 17 – 21 Oct 2023
Age Recommendation: 14+ (The show contains strong language, death and potentially triggering references to foodbanks, sex work and the benefits system.)
Running Time: 2 hours inc. interval
- Wheelchair Accessible Venue
- Wheelchair Accessible Toilet