David Nellist as Daniel Blake. Pictures: Pamela Raith

I, Daniel Blake

The Studio, Birmingham Rep


The process of engaging effectively and deeply with theatrical productions is amplified if you are lucky enough to attend with a knowledgeable person with whom you can reflect on the performance.

Last night I attended the Press night of I, Daniel Blake with Rob Phillips, Chair of the excellent Highbury Players, who has more years’ experience than he would care to mention in both directing and performing. This critique while written largely in the first person is a reflection of both our thoughts.

I, Daniel Blake is a devastating indictment of what life is like in the UK, if you are poor. The play has been adapted for the stage by Dave Johns who played Daniel in the 2016 film directed by Ken Loach, and is reprised here to include references to the political environment in the years since the film was made. It feels as important and vital as it ever did.

The action takes place over a few months whilst Daniel (David Nellist), who has been told by his doctor that he can’t work due to his heart condition, fights the benefits system in an attempt to get employment support allowance. Along the way a friendship forms with Katie (Bryony Corrigan), a single mom from London who has been re-homed in distant Newcastle along with her school-aged daughter Daisy . . . Daze, (Jodie Wild). Katie arrives with just ten pounds to see her through to the end of the month, as she has been sanctioned for being a few minutes late to an appointment.

dan mid 1

Bryony Corrigan as Katie, Jodie Wild as Daisy and David Nellist as Daniel

Early on, the play reminds us that in 2010 David Cameron made his ‘big society’ speech. Under the banners of ‘freedom’ and ‘responsibility’ he introduced “a huge cultural change where people … don’t turn to … government for answers to the problems they face … but instead feel both free and powerful … to help themselves … ”. In the view of the writers this is code for the introduction of austerity as a conservative political ideology, where people are neither free nor powerful.

The clever set suits the mood perfectly. It is austere and simple and seamlessly allows for transitions between scenes. The lighting design compliments the set using light and shade simply but to great effect. The use of video graphics helps the settings and transitions, and allows for interjections of political speeches. An interesting use of projected sub-titles onto elements of the set, whilst improving accessibility, also had the effect of emphasising the importance of the spoken words.

The characterisation by the actors is profoundly affecting. At its best theatre creates an intimacy with the audience, and the studio space at the Rep served this purpose well. Very quickly the audience feels personally involved in the lives of the characters and related to their frustrations, anger, and the loneliness of being an outsider fighting the system.

The result of being an outsider is, as Katie says, the dehumanising nature of being ignored. She asks “does that shock you? It should”. Some in the audience were literally bought to tears, and later many roundly applauded when an anti-establishment rallying cry was called for by a homeless character; you feel angry on behalf of the characters.


Katie on her first visit to a food bank

A constructive use of the theme music for the BBC shipping forecast, which was recorded for Dan on a cassette tape, provides a glimmer of optimism as it suggests that although things are stormy now, the wind will surely change and things will get better. This glimmer of optimism, however, is never realised as the play postulates that in most respects things have certainly not improved since the film was made. This also of course proves a tricky point for the play; what is it trying to achieve? A point we will return to.

The little true potential for salvation is found through the friendship and (platonic) love between Dan, Katie and Daze, although it is hard fought for. At one stage Katie tells Dan “If you show me any more love, I’m going to break”, a devastating rejection, but one that is ultimately healed.

The writers, keen to occasionally break through the otherwise bleak situation, do offer a few laughs to puncture the atmosphere. Katie learning to speak in a Geordie accent being a highlight, but to be honest these instances are few and far between.

There were aspects which didn’t sit entirely comfortably with me or Rob. On reflection we think this may be because the portrayed establishment characters who serve the uncompromising regulations of officialdom are very narrowly portrayed; apart from a faint glimmer of humanity from a police officer who was the daughter of a friend of Dan, they are seen as indifferent, lacking in empathy, cold and dismissive.

Maybe theirs is a story for a different time, but I feel that the play could find some space to reflect how they too are dehumanised by the system they have little choice but to serve; after all they are only one redundancy notice or mortgage repayment failure away from the other side of the table or telephone line. Maybe some at least in the audience recognised that there is a bit of the establishment in them too and this is where the feelings of discomfort come from.

Overall this is an excellent production that throws a spotlight on an issue of increasing importance. Moments of relief, however, are few and far between and it gives little cause for optimism; one yearns for a happy ending which never comes. Herein though sits its authenticity. One of the audio clips played was of Damien Green who declared in parliament about the film that, although ‘he hadn’t seen it, it is a work of fiction’.

There is no doubt, however, that the audience tonight who gave a standing ovation view the play as a powerful and authentic record of the human price to be paid for politicians who concentrate on ideology rather than their duty to the public they are meant to serve. It is, as my mum used to say, a grim but important truth, but only for those who can afford a ticket and have a spare few quid for a pint in the bar.

As Rob and I left the theatre we pondered on the role of theatre in general and the play in particular as a vehicle for change, especially because the reach of theatrical productions is by definition limited to the relatively small audience who get to see it. It leaves you feeling angry for sure, but also helpless as we walked past the street homeless outside the theatre.

If it is a call for activism and change then it preaches only to the converted. We think, however, the writers understand this and, in the end, as Katie’s last powerful speech says, all it can realistically achieve is to give a voice to the people who exist at the wrong end of political ideology. Real people who are not “clients, service users, a national insurance number or a blip on the screen” just people, like the rest of us.

If you rail against social injustices you should go and see it; but those who really should, probably won’t.

Martin Walker and Rob Phillips


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