I, Daniel Blake at Theatre Royal Stratford East
“I don’t live, I just exist,” is one of many lines that sums up the primary point I, Daniel Blake so potently makes. Many will be familiar with the 2016 film, directed by Ken Loach alongside his long-term writing partner Paul Laverty. One person unfamiliar with it is Damian Green, the former work and pensions secretary who dismissed it as monstrously unfair fiction, despite having only seen the trailers. The star of the film, Dave Johns, has now adapted it for the stage, loyally following the source material while incorporating recordings of various MPs, such as Theresa May and Liz Truss, to hammer home its message. There is a severe divide between those in power and the so-called working class, which has only grown wider. When the movie was released, austerity and a flawed benefits system made for a desperate situation. Seven years later and with a cost-of-living crisis, things are alarmingly even more dire.
The play introduces us to the titular character: a carpenter who has just had a serious heart attack. His doctors insist he is not fit to work but the benefits office has other ideas. Failing his assessment, Daniel must actively search for employment if he is to receive any financial assistance. Trapped in an endless cycle of red tape, kept on hold and then passed from one robotic call handler to another, he has no help or support. At best, he is treated like a piece of data rather than a person. At worst, he is looked at as a hindrance by the indifferent officers who threaten sanctions (which result in loss of benefit payment) at the drop of a hat.
At the Job Centre, Dan intervenes when Katie is rebuked for being late for an appointment. She got the wrong bus having only arrived in Newcastle that day from London. She has been rehoused up north because her city could not accommodate her and now she faces five weeks without a penny. Suspicious of his kindness at first, Katie gradually opens up to Dan, who helps do up her house and provides some much-needed company to her and her daughter.
As well as inserting verbatim recordings to make the play feel strikingly relevant, Johns also affords more breathing space for Katie’s story and the relationship she and her daughter Daisy form with Daniel. It allows for some heart-warming scenes which champion human kindness, offering the audience some respite from the maddeningly frustrating exchanges between Dan and the pen-pushing bureaucrats at Universal Credit who so dispassionately decide his fate.
Bryony Corrigan presents a well-rounded Katie: we get to see both her maternal, as well as her angry and combative side. We see her as a desperate woman allowing her daughter to eat while she literally starves. We see a deep vulnerability and fear that she endeavours to contain in an effort to be hopeful and positive despite her circumstances. Jodie Wild, who makes her professional stage debut, convinces as her daughter Daisy, and the two share a pleasant back-and-forth with excellent chemistry.
David Nellist brings such soul to the role of Daniel. We can’t help but be drawn in by his charm and his good nature despite the many obstacles he is faced with. We feel his frustration, anger, confusion and desperation. He is the everyman who represents the rapidly dying idea of common sense against an overwhelming backdrop of illogical and ineffective formalities that have replaced compassion with apathy. It’s a sublime performance.
While there are pacing issues, and the play is too long at two hours including interval, this is a suitably urgent and impassioned piece of theatre. I, Daniel Blake will leave a lasting imprint on those who see it. The same, unfortunately, might not be said for the oblivious and the detached in power who will no doubt continue to claim this is merely a work of fiction.
Images: Pamela Raith Photography
I, Daniel Blake is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 24th until 28th October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.