I, Daniel Blake – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Mattie Bagnall

Writer: Paul Laverty

Adaptor: David Johns

Director: Mark Calvert

“It’s only a work of fiction” were the dismissive words of the government as they were challenged on the accuracy of the distressing scenes in Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. While technically true, the pain, anguish and heartbreak captured in the film is only too relatable to many of those watching. Having such an emotional connection with the events on screen is one thing, but Dave Johns’ stage adaptation makes this storyline even more vivid following his own portrayal of the role of Daniel in the film. The audience is left with a sense of shock and dismay as they leave the theatre in near silence to reflect on the, sadly, all-too-believable scenes on stage.

Johns, along with director Mark Calvert has excelled in bringing this to the stage for English Touring Theatre. Dan is introduced to us during the toughest period of his life. He has experienced a crippling heart attack which has left him unable to work on the advice of his doctor. At this point, we feel Dan’s ever-growing frustration as the bureaucracy of the welfare application means he is being interrogated about body parts that couldn’t be any further away from his struggling heart. The news that Dan is apparently fit to work is delivered with a robotic lack of empathy, but this is only the start of Dan’s journey as his faint hope and optimism that common sense will prevail slowly drifts away as the play evolves.

While the title of the play suggests this could be exclusively about Dan’s ordeal with the benefits system, it is anything but. Katie Jenkins is embarking on a new chapter of her life as she relocates the length of the country from London to Newcastle to hopefully experience better times with her teenage daughter, Daisy. The three characters meet early on and build up a strong bond which proves that even in the face of adversity, they can come together to pick each other up.

David Nellist is exceptional in the role of Dan, showing every moment of hope, compassion, kindness and heartbreak as he juggles his own problems with the need to feel useful for the benefit of others. A heart-warming relationship is formed with both Katie and Daisy, played by Bryony Corrigan and Jodie Wild respectively. The two are entirely believable in this naturalistic piece, and Katie’s struggle to provide a safe and warm home for her daughter while masking the true problems will painfully resonate with people watching. This is encapsulated more than ever at the end of Act One when a destitute Katie can’t wait any longer to devour the items she has picked up at her first visit to the food bank.

As all the action is unfolding on stage, a large billboard depicting government propaganda towers above them. Tweets and messages from politicians over the years are broadcast to lay bare the lack of empathy in decision-making. In this stage adaptation, politicians from more recent times are also used to highlight the fact that the situation has not improved, and has arguably only got worse. The use of these projections and sound adds to the powerful message.

While this is no doubt a dark and deeply reflective play, there are some lighter moments which help the audience to connect with the characters more. Dan’s sarcastic humour is entirely relatable and China (Kema Sikazwe) brings some laughs with his energetic personality as he tries to make ends meet for his own journey.

I, Daniel Blake doesn’t hold back and it is for this reason that it is successful. It will be relatable for many, and equally painful to watch for others. It may double down views on the undignified benefits system for some, and change perceptions for others, but it is guaranteed to be a truly reflective experience which people should immerse themselves in.

Runs until 11 November 2023 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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