I, Daniel Blake

Reviewer's rating

I really wanted to like I, Daniel Blake more than I did. That said, there are many good things about this production adapted from a famous Ken Loach film.

For a start, the entire cast does a truly excellent job and works together as an ensemble. David Nellist is sympathetic and highly believable as Daniel, a solid working-class man of 59 who has had a heart attack and needs state aid while he recovers. He portrays convincingly Daniel’s kindness, his empathetic personality, his sharpness and irritability and the gradual deterioration of his spirit as he fights bureaucracy that is not fit for purpose. Bryony Corrigan is the heart of the show as Katie Jenkins who has such problems fighting the system for herself and her daughter and eventually has to turn to prostitution to pay for herself and her child; and Jodie Wild is excellent as her daughter, Daisy, especially in the sequence when she brings food to Daniel to thank him for all his kindness.

The actors doubling roles work well to give the impression of a more peopled and larger community. Micky Cochrane is especially notable and nearly stops the show twice, once with his rant as the owner of a garden centre ranting about the lazy scroungers on benefits and once as a bum ranting about the unfairness of the system and the iniquities of the Conservative government and the whole bureaucracy. It is fine bit of theatre to have both those speeches performed by a single actor.

The production team have done a fine, professional job with director Mark Calvert having paced the show and built up to the second act climax with real skill. I never saw the film but assume that the adaptation is faithful to its spirit and intentions. The set design is evocative of the underfunded, underprivileged world of the North of the England. The video design by Matt Brown and the engineering of it is a central addition to the stage effects, becoming almost like a Greek chorus commenting through the visuals and offstage voices reading the scripts that we are seeing on a screen as we watch the characters being slowly ground down by poverty and bureaucratic intransigence, by thoughtless adherence to the inflexible rules of the system and by sheer stupidity.

I, Daniel Blake is a case study in what’s happening to a whole class of people in this country today. And the repetition at the very end of the play of the opening statement by a minister when asked what he thinks of the tale is a very powerful moment once you have been through the story: Well, may I remind you that it’s fiction.

But we all know that it’s not.

Though the play was interesting, though I could understand intellectually what it was trying to tell me, though I was admiring of its professional presentation by the cast and the creatives, I was simply not at any point as emotionally engaged or infuriated by it as I wanted to be. It could be that I was simply having an off night. It could also be that most of what was portrayed on the stage was simply not news to me. I’ve been reading about it every day for years; I’ve been exercised in my mind and heart by it for a long time. I’ve also experienced, as we all probably have by now, extremely infuriating and frustrating hours on the phone pushing buttons according to the instructions of a robotic voice and trying to get through to someone or some IT programme that will solve the problem I have called up about, just like Daniel in the play.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the play. I don’t think it was a waste of time. But I’m afraid that in the end, personally, I found it more polemic than dramatic.