Review: I, Daniel Blake at Northern Stage

Review: I, Daniel Blake at Northern Stage

I, Daniel Blake – Northern Stage

31st May 2023

This was never going to be an easy watch and that proved exactly to be the case. This play, adapted by Dave Johns, is based on the 2016 film of the same name which was, itself, written by Paul Laverty and directed by Ken Loach. 

It tells the tale of Dan Blake who, following a heart attack, is not able to trade as a carpenter, like his father before him, and finds himself reliant on national aid in the form of Employment and Support Allowance. We join Dan at the start of the play where he is attending a work capability assessment which he subsequently fails, only scoring 12 points when he needed 15 to remain on his benefit. 

In a parallel story, Katie and her daughter, Daisy have been relocated to the North East due to a lack of suitable housing in the capital. Their lives collide as Dan is trying to sort out his benefits as Katie arrives at the benefits office to do the same – with a very similar result. The staff at Jobcentre Plus are portrayed as cold, officious, uncaring jobsworths and having experienced them over the years, the script has it pretty much spot on. 

Dave Johns, who played the part of Dan Blake in the movie has done a superb job of bringing the heart of the film to the stage while updating the script to include references to the current cost of living crisis, the seemingly never-ending parade of Prime Ministers of late and some of his own observational humour which is a blessed release from what is a very claustrophobic feeling story. 

David Nellist takes over the role of Daniel Blake and he effortlessly brings the warmth, Northern friendliness but also the frustration that Dan feels throughout the production. He is joined by Bryony Corrigan who cuts a desperate figure as a mother just desperately trying to provide for herself and her daughter in an increasingly unfeeling world. There is a genuine sense of togetherness between these two central characters which is as endearing as it is difficult to watch as we seem them both battle with bureaucracy, idiotic rules and regulations and utter despair. 

The rest of the cast all play multiple roles and are excellent foils for the main characters. I particularly enjoyed Kema Sikazwe who reprises his role from the film as China, a warehouse worker who has lofty ambitions to be a self-employed import/export entrepreneur among other parts. Jodie Wild puts in a beautifully authentic part as the daughter of the embattled Daisy and the cast is skilfully completed by Janine Leigh as the very cold benefits officer, Sheila and last but certainly not least Micky Cochrane in a number of supporting roles including Harry Edwards. 

This version of the story does not seek to present the film on stage but to offer the audience watching an up-to-date portrayal of the struggles facing the poorest in society and it does that very well indeed. The set (Rhys Jarman) is very stark but very cleverly constructed to allow for subtitles to be unobtrusively provided throughout the performance. There are many quotes from real politicians displayed as twitter messages as the story unfolds but these are actual quotes that were said by the politicians themselves which makes them all the more hard-hitting.

It would be a cold-hearted individual that is not moved by the plight of Dan and Katie who through no fault of their own, have found themselves in hard times. The direction (Mark Calvert) is very slick and allows the action to move quickly when it needs to but uses tempo changes very effectively when the narrative requires more contemplation. The conclusion to act one is particularly and necessarily emotional. 

This current run of I, Daniel Blake at Northern Stage is already sold out but it will return for another welcome visit from 12th – 16th September as it tours many venues around the UK. 

Tickets will be on sale soon and I recommend you get in quickly because I have no doubt that this second run will sell out almost as quickly as the first.

This is not fiction – this is an everybody story of how circumstances can leave anyone vulnerable in a cold and heartless world. It is a story of love, empowerment, and community in the face of the cruellest adversity. It is a story for everyone. 

– Stephen Stokoe

Photo Credit : Pamela Raith Photography

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