Pictures: Pamela Raith

I, Daniel Blake

Coventry Belgrade


Ken Loach won a name for his almost unique pioneering of films commonly described as British Social Realism. Just think: following Poor Cow, in 1969 he gave us Kes, (unforgettable title, story, Yorkshire accent) starring the exceptional Barnsley-born Dai (David) Bradley as the 15 year old Billy Casper (feels younger, but in fact was exactly 15 when it was shot), a working class lad who turns a miserable, downtrodden teenage existence into a joyous one thanks to his intimate, touching relationship with a (doomed) kestrel.

Bradley, (of course his name the same as one of our greatest RSC and NT Shakespearians), is still, after a gap, performing in films, All Quiet on the Western Front (with Ernest Borgnine), and the lead in For King and Country (with Nicholas Jones, also paired with Dai in The Flame Trees of Thika) being just two of his well-cast appearances.

Why all this? Well, it's impossible to ignore Loach's often gripping approach and so often screenplays too when one considers the present play. Why, again? Because I, Daniel Blake is absolutely in the same mode. When UK film began to catch up on social deprivation of this, it was Loach to whom we owed so much. At times he seemed like a lone voice beating the drum for the British underclass, the working man (sometimes Union affiliated).

In other respects, not quite alone, as this was to a degree the path opened up in stagings, especially at the Royal Court, by the Angry Young Men of Theatre: John Osborne, Wesker, Alan Sillito, possibly Pinter, and several others, followed soon by the creative generation, in different Arts, which gave a voice to, honoured, championed, the have-nots. One of the best-known more recent follow-ups has been the collapsing industry'trilogy' of The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliot.

The last, however, had the inspired leadership of director Stephen Daldry. Here Mark Calvert directed, Paul Laverty originally scripted but Dave Johns adapted, and the earthy Northern Broadsides, Oldham Coliseum (now closed after the withdrawal of Arts Council funding) and Birmingham's own Rep were co-producers. It ought to have been dramatic, electrifying, edge-of-seat stuff. The passion should have communicated itself forcefully (Katie's did: 'If it's the last thing I do, I swear I'm going to make this place home'). cast

Daniel, played by Dave Nellist and the cast

It needed new things to say, not just tired trotting out of a current, maybe in plot detail post-the already finely explored miners' strike (including the brilliant Billy Elliott musical - Elton John); an apparently savage Welfare system; the dismal hunt for 'state benefits, the 'attend the workshop if you want to receive Jobseeker's Allowance', the sometimes inept but also determined search for simple advice; indifferent authority (spray painting complaint on wall a mere salving of depressed frustration); bastard landlords, the ordinary man's rightful experience (Daniel, Dave Nellist - not the former MP, who is a welcome and supportive regular in the Belgrade audience, and whose insistent, betimes angry left wing credentials might have set alight the whole stage; and whose life story would have made a far better plot). 

It's enough to drive one to exhaustion and death. And that of course will be Daniel's fate,

'No, critically acclaimed Stage Premiere' it may have been (from selective quotes The Stage liked it, so did The Times): 'One of the most important stories of a generation (i.e. frightfully up to date and relevant', says the blurb). 'I Daniel Blake exposes ('exposes' - don't we know all this?) the stark reality behind the cost-of-living crisis headlines'.

Well, jolly good. As fashionable as some, even many of the current movements:  opposing Tories, inconsiderate state cutbacks, tiresome customer service waiting, employment and support allowances with impossible conditions, bossy or unhelpful or even heartless-seeming medical secretaries - oh dear, audiences do need a 'relevant' drama about it to tell to people how it really is.

OK, so we - those whose are not on the bottom rung - are doubtless a nation of uninformed, insensitive, even selfish prats. The much nominated but single Bafta-winning 2016 film, of course, with Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, etc., plus Kema (above) in his same role, in an 18-part cast, was a whole lot better, partly because it will have allowed script writer Laverty to stretch and fan his considerable wings, here surely compacted. Different location including availability of outdoor. Ken Loach, directing, evoking some strongly controlled, exploratory, polished, pithy acting.

Bryony Corrigan Jodie Wild and David Nellist

This stage adaptation has done at least eight venues on the present tour and doubtless some - many? - audience members will have been wowed by it. I certainly wasn't. The style is out of date, the content unilluminating, the (virtual) preaching unuseful, the oh-dear-why-did-you-never realise-this-before? verging on the ridiculous. The plot, inasmuch as there is one, is desultory. The setting (though perhaps naturally, not inappropriately) uninspiring, the conversation repetitive. When a couple of bin-bags are logged around the stage near the start, that just about sums up the level this attains. Perhaps we could call it Bin-bag (or Dustbin) drama.    

I't's a bit unkind, concentrating first on the negatives. There were some positives. I thought all the actors did well, even if none of them set us (or perhaps was meant to, their condition being oppressed) on fire. Dave Nellist, with a handsome, impressive list of previous roles, created a highly believable, somewhat crusty 59 year old, trying increasingly desperately to get some actual help with his needs. He had just suffered a heart attack, and managed not to display, perhaps he or the director to have researched, what major or side effects that might occasion (residual pain, palpitations, weakness, fatigue. No evident chest clutching, no unease of left arm or hand, no aches and pains except of those external mental ones of utter frustration at being thwarted at every turn, the latter of which he displayed immensely well.

Let's not forget the lights by Simisola Majekodunmi (fabulously well-placed spots at the start, and, later here and there, similar quality effects. But the big 'lit' idea was the to me and probably everyone the very effective back projections - were these creditable to Dan Crews and Oliver Brown ('Sound and Video Engineers), Harrison Cooke and Ben Walden (Production Video Engineers', and/or Caitlyn Russell ('Production and Video Engineer'): it's always a mystery - blaring across the full width cyclorama newspaper front pages, bitter criticisms and snarky, smug, inept or obnoxious politicians' utterances.

A kind of montage each time, each informative and helping the action onstage, often disinterested, critical, or aggressive. Back projections are almost a cliche these days in theatre and opera, but these were well-timed, well-constructed and well-conceived. 

Meanwhile such music as there was, by Ross Millard, especially when like a kind of intermezzo conjoining scenes, all contributed - except surely the delightful music heralding curtain up (as it were), Eric Coates' 1933  Knightsbridge March, most famous for introducing the 1930s-'60s BBC Home Service programme In Town Tonight. Totally irrelevant - yet what a charming choice. Some kind of irony there, perhaps.  


Of course, one of the major points of the play/film is that Daniel presumably ignores some of the routine advice, gets het up, overdoes it - and has, it seems, no choice. Piqued and aggrieved, distressed, wretched, tormented, spasmodic, desolate, distraught, afflicted and reproachful - all of which are common consequences even after a spell in hospital - and all, he feels and we feel, because of his maltreatment by every branch of authority (and with all these, as is obviously implied and inescapable non-physical aspects) Nellist, just to confirm, gave a forceful, convincing interpretation, as authoritative as the beastly authorities themselves.

The two young(ish) girls in desperate search of a roof over their heads (fortunately, not surprisingly, a pad in Newcastle being the one to be offered), Katie and Daisy, were gamely played, their relationship, possibly by their shared distress but not definitely girlfriends rather than girl friends, being one thing over which they showed admirable restraint, again, utterly believable, with some nice solo turns for both Bryony Corrigan's more feisty Katie Jenkins more dominant and bearing the larger share, but Jody Wild as the gentler, more reconciling Daisy, each time sensitive and sympathetic, shone each in her own salient moments. 

Janine Leigh's admirably insensitive medical secretary/telephonist/disembodied commanding, almost insulting voiceovers, trained in Newcastle. Kema Sikazwe (Kema Kay) as China, the nicely articulate, servant-like underling, a decent performer, alludes to growing up in Newcastle. Micky Cochrane (Harry Edwards), but firing off a range of finely defined personnel; in some, perhaps several ways, I thought him the best, and most ably characterised, of the cast, has appeared frequently in that region; and Nellist, albeit his birthplace not asserted as the north-east, is listed by his agent as able to adopt, above all, a 'highly skilled' Geordie accent - he certainly did here. All four consistently produced very attractive, genuine Tyneside burrs. This provinciality helped add a layer to the story - perhaps not sufficiently, but through no fault of these enjoyable actors.

Important to add the same for director Mark Calvert: 'a working class theatre director from the North East', where his community work (including schools and colleges) has won awards and approbation. Composer Ross Millard has a significant role with a Sunderland-based band. On all these the tour Programme, proved highly useful. Movement director Martin Hylton has founded and led a major project in Gateshead. Siobhan McAuley, the Associate director, is also based in the North-East. You'd think all their ideal credentials were perfect for I, Daniel Blake, whose tour included Newcastle's Northern Stage and the Durham Gala. And indeed they were.

But it's in both the detail and the overall that IDB, which after a very decent, imaginative tour went on from the Belgrade to give its final performances this week at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud theatre, fell short. Shortly the current pressures of Windrush generation, Black Lives Matter (a number of very satisfactory Indian-Pakistani-Bangla Desh plays have been seen recently at the Belgrade's B2), the provenly inspiring, brilliantly conceived all-black staging in London, plus the wonderful historically Asian Phoenix Dance company from Leeds. a proportion of today's fashions - or at least urgent appeal - will yield to prioritising something else, as they nearly always do. How long before we see White Lives Matter?

No, this play was fairly weakly scripted, flat, only partly interesting, and dull. How original, even revolutionary it would have been seen in Ken Loach's early years. But the subject matter was hackneyed, the direction pretty non-existent, gesturing under-explored (Daniel's constant hands in pockets, or keeping his diminutive pack on his back when with the others, would not have been allowed at, say, the RSC), the movement (was there any) maybe under thought-through, the staging features except the cast, frankly feeble (if not flawed) and boring.

How much do we hear about Katie's children (possibly excised in this 'update to be relevant for 2023 - hence George Osborne's - view back projection - Universal Credit). All right: food banks are new(ish); the current financial misery like - well, anything like other miseries (the postwar 1950s, unresolved by the early '60s? the Callaghan late seventies? the Thatcherite eighties?) Audiences should feel angry and outraged', says Mark Calvert. Well, scarcely, so lame is the whole enterprise.   

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre