I, Daniel Blake

Adapted by Dave Johns from the film written by Paul Laverty
English Touring Theatre
Theatre Royal, Stratford East

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The cast: Micky Cochrane, Jodie Wild, David Nellist, Bryony Corrigan, Janine Leigh and Kema Sikazwe Credit: Pamela Raith
David Nellist as Daniel, Bryony Corrigan as Katie and Jodie Wild as Daisy Credit: Pamela Raith
David Nellist as Daniel and Janine Leigh as Benefits Clerk Credit: Pamela Raith
Janine Leigh as Food Bank volunteer and Bryony Corrigan as Katie Credit: Pamela Raith
Micky Cochrane as Homeless Man Credit: Pamela Raith
Kema Sikazwe as China and David Nellist as Daniel Credit: Pamela Raith

When it premièred in 2016, Kenneth Loch’s film, adapted here by Dave Johns who played the lead in it, was a scathing look at the obstacle course that claimants must negotiate through the UK’s benefits bureaucracy. It was very relevant then, it is even more relevant now in the midst of a cost of living crisis.

Johns accompanies the action with projections on a hoarding above Rhys Jarman’s setting of manoeuvrable metal shelving that look like worn political posters and text of ministers’ and other politicians’ statements to accompany their soundbites, and he begins with a comment on the film itself from Damien Green, Minister for the Cabinet Office under Theresa May, who, having seen only trailers for it, pointed out it was fiction. True, the character are fictitious, but what they tell us is true.

If you have been lucky enough never to have had to deal with a benefit office, you have probably experienced the difficulty of getting a doctor’s appointment, a call centre or a chatbot whose dialogue doesn’t match what you want to ask or report. The benefit system can be much worse, as Geordie carpenter Daniel Blake finds as he tries to get support after his doctor insists that he should not yet return to work after having a heart attack.

In the benefit office, he tries to come to the aid of Londoner Katie, who has fled homelessness in London and two years in a hostel and then north to find a roof for herself and daughter Daisy but with no support now she has got there. While battling his own frustrations, Dan tries to be supportive and they help fill the gap left by his widowhood.

I, Daniel Blake is very effective in the way it presents benefits bureaucracy and beyond that effectively demonstrates the way others can impact by attitudes that lack understanding, like the garden centre manager who thinks Dan has been wasting his time when in fact he was following official instructions. Meanwhile, Dan, who tries to follow the rules, is contrasted with China (Kema Sikazwe), who survives by operating on the borders of what is legal.

David Nellist as Dan effectively captures his warm-hearted kindness and concern for young Daisy and her mother, while Bryony Corrigan suggests Katie’s initial wariness before she begins to trust him. They present human beings very easy to identify with as their situations become desperate. You feel both compassion for them and anger at what they have to deal with, as when Katie collapses, cramming her mouth to assuage her hunger when she visits a food bank.

Janine Leigh plays the benefit office functionary, ticking boxes not able to respond to real need, among other roles and Micky Cochrane has a passionate moment as a homeless man. I, Daniel Blake powerfully makes its political points, but Mark Calvert’s production relies on its actors to bring its characters to real life; the script gives little opportunity to discover much about them outside the immediate situation, but what it does do, it does very well, and that’s a good reason to see it.

After Stratford East, I, Daniel Blake will continue its tour to Royal & Derngate, Northampton (31 October–4 November), Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (8–11 November) and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (14–18 November).

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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