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Review – I Daniel Blake – Playhouse, Liverpool

VETERAN screenwriter/director Ken Loach is best known for creating heartfelt, gritty drama that uses the stories of fictional characters to make powerful social commentary. Whilst his latest such film The Old Oak hits big screens this month, English Touring Theatre are touring an adaptation of his 2016 outing I Daniel Blake, a film which made headlines for its reception by politicians at the time as much as for its content.

Whilst undeniably a work of fiction, as it was dismissively described by government ministers, the film sought, rather successfully, to highlight the failings of a benefits system that left people like its eponymous character falling through the gaps in between Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance. There is probably no need to offer a spoiler alert before mentioning that Blake died whilst pursuing an appeal against a Work Capability Assessment that said he was fit for work, contrary to the advice of his own doctor.

What the film failed to do was to set the blame for this firmly enough at the feet of the policy-makers. Rather, it aimed at the practitioners who were tasked with delivering the unworkable rules; trying to squeeze an infinite variety of people into the ill fitting boxes that the one-size-fits-all system required of them. Where it succeeded was in telling an important and very real story in a direct and concise manner, and highlighting the monumental failings of the legislation.

The stage play is adapted by Dave Johns, who starred in the original screen version, and he clearly aims at pointing a few fingers at those who made the real decisions – the ministers who created and then went on to defend the legislation and who defined the guidelines under which it was implemented. Whilst playing out the familiar story from the film, Johns layers on top of it a collection of quotes from ministers and their advisors that both underpin the original message and give it relevance in the current cost-of-living crisis.

The central performances from David Nellist as Daniel Blake and Bryony Corrigan as his friend Katie are strong and delivered with absolute conviction, and are supported by excellent ensemble work from the remaining cast. Mark Calvert directs with clarity and shapes each scene for maximum empathy. Nonetheless, there is an overwhelming feeling that the whole play is preaching to the choir. Whilst it certainly succeeds in firing up the outrage of the audience, there is a sense of sadness in thinking that those who really need to hear the message will be unlikely to ever be part of that audience. We currently have a government who seem barely to know that theatre exists, let alone ever go to see it in action.

Rhys Jarman’s stark but tremendously effective and malleable set suggests the various settings while not encroaching on the human drama. Meanwhile, projection and audio recording provide an overlay of contemporary context, using the words and voices of those in positions of power to thrust home the ongoing reality of the central issue.

Onstage, whilst remaining a devastating piece of drama that fires up the emotions and asks a lot of important questions, I Daniel Blake is a theatrical experience that tells an all too well aware audience truths that they already know.

I Daniel Blake is produced by Tiny Dragon and English Touring Theatre in association with Northern Stage and continues touring at a further 8 venues until November.

Star rating: 3½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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