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Review: I, Daniel Blake at HOME is “visceral portrayal of life under a morally bankrupt government”

Ken Loach’s films have always put a spotlight on an issue which is affecting people who have been forgotten.

I, Daniel Blake

From Billy Casper, left alone with pop and crisps at night and by day, and feeling unfulfilled until he finds a sparrow hawk which he trains in the classic film Kes.

And more recently, I, Daniel Blake which highlighted the plight of people behind the ‘benefits’ headlines and those facing extreme poverty.

With a system that works against them, instead of for them, the ‘support’ always seems to come at a cost to their mental health and self-esteem.

The Joseph Rountree Foundation 2022

The Joseph Rountree Foundation 2022 Poverty report revealed that there are now 14.5 million living in poverty in the UK.

So, now more than ever feels like the right time to bring this story to the stage.

This play is a co-production between Northern Stage, Birmingham Rep, English Touring Theatre, tiny dragon productions, and Cardboard Citizens.

And on a poignant note, It was originally set to be staged at the Oldham Coliseum as they are one of the producers also.

Dave Johns played the title character of Daniel in the film and he has adapted this story for the stage.

So instead of offering audiences a retread, new context and scenes have been added, and they add, as opposed to taking away from the drama and anger running through the piece, like the letters in a stick of rock.

If you have never seen the film, we meet Geordie Dan (here played by David Nellist) when he is on the mend following a heart attack. He is a carpenter and misses working but his doctor advises that there will be a risk to his health if he returns too soon.

So, he is simply waiting. He is in the benefits office dealing with some robotic staff who repeat the mantra provided for them, each time he asks a question when he sees a desperate young woman called Katie (played by Bryony Corrigan) who needs support but she is about to face a sanction for being a few minutes late.

She and her daughter Daisy (Jodie Wild) have been relocated to Newcastle from London and they are both excited about moving into their new flat.

Then they arrive and realise that the word new in this case, means filthy and decaying.

Daniel offers to support them with odd jobs to give him a purpose and a beautiful friendship develops between these three lost souls, who are simply numbers to the government.

But they come alive when in each other’s company, as there is empathy, solidarity and a deep understanding of common sense and kindness.

Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting

Rhys Jarman’s depersonalised set design highlights the feeling of being a number, not a person. Likewise, Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting is stark and unforgiving, as the characters sit huddled in blankets, dreaming of a better day ahead.

Dave Johns ensures that the urgency that carried you through the award-winning film remains.

But there is something even more immediate at play here because you are seeing it live, right in front of you and because since the film was made in 2016, there has been no tide of change.

In fact, things have gotten far worse. So the anger is replaced by despair and disbelief.

As you watch Katie filled with hunger, grabbing a tin of beans at a foodbank and swigging the contents and then breaking down with shame and embarrassment, it still shocks you, upsets you and makes you feel ashamed that this is happening.

The dehumanisation of ordinary people is where this play excels in terms of representation. Everything is so visceral, in your face and you are unable to do what the government does, which is to look the other way.

David Nellist brings the right amount of everyman appeal to Daniel.

You have met him, and you like him, and therefore you feel his pain.

Bryony Corrigan is terrific as a mum who is determined to do right by her daughter, whatever the cost.

Seeing her dignity slip through her fingers is heartbreaking and the actress imbues Katie with an inner strength which is being ebbed away, like the benefits she needs to survive.

Jodie Wild has a difficult job, as she is playing a child but instead of overdoing it, she underplays and this works really well.

She is particularly good when her character is saying nothing, the disappointment on her face and sense of feeling trapped and older than her years is evident throughout her performance.

Zero hours contracts

Kema Sikazwe brings humour and optimism as China, a young neighbour trying to kick zero-hours contracts to the kerb with a scheme selling trainers.

This is the ‘family’ that Dan needs, but sadly it is not enough, as there is always a sanction or task for him to complete which gets him one step closer to giving up, and that is the aim.

Micky Cochrane and Janine Leigh play a multitude of roles and they convey coldness and warmth with ease, switching from benefits staff to selfless foodbank volunteers, highlighting who is propping these people up and keeping them alive in many cases.

During the second half of the play some story arcs are a little bit rushed, so Daniel’s descent is not quite as impactful as it could be.

But this is a minor flaw, as this story remains as vital as it ever did, thanks to a flawless cast, Dave John’s timely additions to the writing, and superb direction by Mark Calvert, which brings these characters from the aisles of the stalls and right into your hearts.

I, Daniel Blake is at HOME until 1st July but it is sold out. Check HOME for returns or catch the tour at another stop, including Liverpool, via the show’s website.

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