6 June 2023

I, Daniel Blake @ Northern Stage

I, like many others (not just in the North East) remember being horrified by the events in Ken Loach’s award-winning 2016 film starring Dave Johns. Horrified, but not surprised. I’ve had my own dealings with the Department of Work and Pensions, and it was never what you would call a supportive experience. But the depiction of how dehumanising and downright senseless the benefits system is was shocking to say the least. Things seemed pretty bleak back then, but with the added pressures of the cost of living crisis the story (by Paul Laverty) is more poignant as ever.

I was interested to see how the play, adapted by Johns himself, would translate to the stage. The delusional comments of politicians over the years popped up on a screen every so often, an effective way to remind us of the government’s complete disconnect with the struggles of ordinary people. The set was simple yet effective, with moveable shelves doubling up as the character’s flats/the Job Centre. Playing Daniel was local actor David Nellist, who was great in the Live Theatre’s recent production “Love It If We Beat Them.” He had less to do here, but he’s just as powerful as the kindly, widowed joiner, who just wants to work but can’t due to ill health. Cue a soul-destroying spiral dealing with the nonsensical welfare system, and robotic Job Centre staff. Making things even more heart-wrenching is his friendship with single mother Katie (the masterful Bryony Corrigan), who’s been sent to live in Newcastle from London as there's no affordable housing there. She also falls foul of the system and he helps out, until he can’t. Their conversations really drive home how humiliating it is for people to be on the poverty line in “Great” Britain, often through no real fault of their own. Some of Katie’s story is the most harrowing, detailing period poverty, prostitution and food insecurity. 

Bryony Corrigan as Katie

The younger characters bring some much needed optimism, with Katie’s daughter (Jodie Wild) being hopeful and playful, despite her difficult background. Daniel’s friend China (Kema Sikazwe, reprising his film role) sees a way out of zero hour contracts through selling knock-off trainers (who can blame him) and his rap about the system after the interval was a welcome shift in energy. 

If you’ve seen the film, you know how it ends. Dan’s heart-wrenching benefits appeal speech/manifesto demanding to be treated with respect is communicated in a much more sombre setting. At the interval I turned around a lady behind me was sobbing. At the end I saw others visibly crying and I wasn’t far off. Too many people have personal experience of the issues raised, be it first or second hand. It’s crucial that such stories continue to be told in the current climate and those responsible for the flawed system continue to be held to account. 

                                               David Nellist as Daniel with Micky Cochrane 

I,  Daniel Blake, Runs until June 10th at Northern Stage but is sold out. The production will be back from Sept 12th to 16th, and is also at Durham Gala Theatre from Sept 26th to 30th. Running time is 2 hours (plus interval).

Click here for more information and to book.

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