Review: I, Daniel Blake (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

It’s extremely sobering to watch Dave Johns’s stage adaptation of the film I, Daniel Blake (written by Paul Laverty and directed by Ken Loach) and realising that film was released in 2016.

A key successor to Loach’s other films about social injustice (from Cathy Come Home in 1966), I, Daniel Blake focuses on the plight of those below the poverty line, the “working poor”, the “scroungers”, those, like Blake, stuck in red tape limbo.

Dan Blake (a superb David Nellist) is on the cusp of 60 and recovering from a major heart attack. His doctor tells him not to go back to work – his fit to work assessment says otherwise.

While waiting for mandatory reconsideration and appeal, Dan finds himself in a catch-22 situation, forced to apply for jobs he can’t do while waiting for a call to tell him the assessment decision he already knows.

Production photo for I, Daniel Blake

Meeting Katie (a strong and touching Bryony Corrigan) and her daughter Daisy (an excellent stage debut from Jodie Wild) in the job centre, Dan (and us watching) learn of inflexibility and sanctions leaving families on the edge of destitution.

It’s part ‘computer says no’ and part the contemptuous malice of the jobsworth: everything is online, so no printed forms; job hunting in person “isn’t good enough” without a receipt or photographic evidence.

It’s important to note the performances of Janine Leigh and Micky Cochrane who convince in these difficult roles as cogs in a malfunctioning machine – a machine which continues to fail despite productions like this and Francesca Martinez’s All of Us.

Cochrane also has a strong speech to deliver in solidarity of a Daniel Blake who finds civil disobedience is his only possible reaction to his plight. It’s a moment of suppressed rage and hopeless regret.

Production photo for I, Daniel Blake

Kema Sikazwe, an actor with a twinking humour and strong stage presence, repeats his role as ‘entrepreneur’ China from the film, offering another glimpse into the world we often turn a blind eye to.

Around this constant, dehumanising, often vicious story, Johns and director Mark Calvert (with Rhys Jarman’s design of metal shelving acting as metaphor for the situation) bring in warm moments as Dan, Katie, and Daisy become friends.

There are moments of challenge, but it never feels forced. It stops I, Daniel Blake being simply political and makes it personal. As the play’s conclusion makes clear, Daniel Blake and those like him are “citizens – nothing more, nothing less”.

The production also gives those in power their voice – 30p Lee, former PMs Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss, and ministers Damien Green, Therese Coffey – and this is deeply effective comment on a situation which allows both extreme wealth and privilege while demonising those who need access to a safety net from the state.

Production photo for I, Daniel Blake

If I, Daniel Blake doesn’t make you angry, ashamed or frankly, shaken, then it hasn’t made that connection. Last night it clearly did, with warm applause for the performers and support for the Newham Food Bank who were collecting contributions.

I, Daniel Blake could run through without an interval to make it even more powerful, but that’s a small comment on an important production you really should see to reflect on how the legacy of Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” has led to suspicion against those most vulnerable.

You can see I, Daniel Blake at Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 28 Oct with tickets here. The theatre is also accepting food donations all through the run on behalf of Newham Food Bank.

The show then continues its tour to Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. For more details and booking, visit the English Touring Theatre website.


Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography / Helen Murray (header image)

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