I, Daniel Blake

Dave Johns from the film by Paul Laverty
Tiny Dragon Productions, ETT and Northern Stage
Traverse Theatre

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Cast of I, Daniel Blake in the stage premiere at Northern Stage Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Universal Credit quote in job centre scene with David Nellist and Janine Leigh Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Bryony Corrigan as Katie who is re-housed hundreds of miles from her friends and family Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

I, Daniel Blake is not of “a” time, it is of our time. And that is its tragedy.

This is the adaptation of a 7-year-old film which should be seen in the context of then and not now. It is a timely reminder of the state we are in, especially after a worldwide pandemic where we reexamined our connections to each other and the role which the state plays in ensuring that the weakest and the most vulnerable are supported.

Johns’s script has taken the film script and turned it into a performance piece for the stage with due regards to now being in a theatre. Mark Calvert’s direction manages to ensure that the words are paced in a tight structure for the audience. He has, along with Johns, preserved and added a number of very poignant set pieces, not least of which is the ending for Blake himself.

It also has tweets and the voices of various (Government) politicians who have attacked the depiction of the working class in the film or have spoken in favour of the sanctions and DWP processes being dissected and exposed onstage.

The politics are inescapable, but as a theatrical piece of work, it manages to touch us with depictions which are exceptionally authentic. Central to that is the relationship between Blake—here played by David Nellist—and Katie—played by Bryony Corrigan.

Nellist, speaking the words adapted by the man who played Blake in the film, has found a role for himself. He has the dry wit and the enthusiasm of a man up against it before crumbling before our very eyes. Corrigan plays Katie with a poignancy which shows the humanity she is struggling to maintain whilst keeping a house and a home and food on a table for her daughter. She pitches herself perfectly in the role and is quite exceptional.

The ensemble—Kema Sikazwe, Jodie Wild, Janine Leigh and Micky Cochrane—support admirably. Kema as China with entrepreneurial ambition is a character naïvely captured by a government of ambition, who dabbles in dodgy trainers as they dabble in dodgy deals. Wild as Daisy manages to be the tough, vulnerable child at Katie’s centre who becomes the child in Blake’s heart with fine skill.

As for Leigh, she has the tricky job pf playing the DWP villain and does so with great skill to make Johns’s counterpoint argument real. Many of us, of a certain age, see her authority boldly portrayed in a way that causes hackles but also memories to stir. But for me, Cochrane, who played the garden centre manager who berates Blake in the street for being a scrounger, made me squirm the most. Having the man who looked the most likely to employ Blake, who was, in turn, unable to work due to his health, attack Blake for being work shy and a benefit cheat was as uncomfortable as it gets. I am sure many would have squirmed at the person we have walked past in the street or gossiped over in a café or just had an over-the-fence chat with a neighbour about because we felt they were less than we were—man’s inhumanity to man was never better illustrated and made this work beautifully well.

Staging this from the film would have been a challenge if they had not had such a creative team who also know what the possibilities of live performance are. The video work from Pixellux Studios is a highlight, but the set design is what worked most for me. Watching as the dark and dingy shelves are slowly stripped of the props within them as the insides of our protagonist is similarly destroyed is essentially a poignant use of set, technical effects, performances and text.

There is little doubt that the fame of this piece and the fact that it was a Loach / Laverty film helps drive it. For me, it reminded me much of An Inspector Calls, or Look Back in Anger. It serves not just as an observation of our society but as a warning. If we do not change then this shall be the normality for an increasing number of citizens. As such it deserves more than a tour to cement the message.

Theatreland should be embracing this because, judging by the theatre audience that were all around me, this has a depth of appeal that transcends the dressed-up to be entertained crowd—this had plenty of young people in, and those who appeared to ignore the usual theatrical etiquette—it was also sold out. Plenty of people were obviously attracted because of the film, but they seemed not just to enjoy what they saw, but also want to return to see more—what’s not to like about that?

Reviewer: Donald C Stewart

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