REVIEW: I, Daniel Blake – a heartrending plea for the hungry and homeless
A powerful stage adaptation of Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake transforms theatre into a space where the truth becomes a beacon of hope in times of despair and extreme poverty.
I, Daniel Blake by English Touring Theatre is currently playing at The Birmingham Rep.
National treasure Ken Loach is renowned for making films about ordinary people dealing with everyday challenges such as finding food and shelter, employment and equality, overcoming class and racial prejudice, and finding hope and comfort with fellow human beings during difficult and bleak times when greed and selfishness plagues the nation.
From the seminal Cathy Come Home (1966) which galvanised the government to tackle homelessness, Kes (1969) which looked at freedom and individuality through the eyes of a young working-class boy destined for the coal-pits who adopts a fledgling kestrel, to the romantic Ae Fond Kiss (2004) which explored the complications that arise when a young Muslim Scottish man with Pakistani heritage falls in love with an Irish woman from a Catholic background, Loach has used his craft to showcase a kaleidoscope of untold tales.
Over the decades Loach has used his television and feature films to fearlessly excavate and mine the human and social-political landscape and deliver perspectives that sometimes get brushed aside or ignored by mainstream media.
In 2016 Loach directed a small-budget film called I, Daniel Blake which caused quite a stir for exposing the inhuman bureaucracy of the social welfare system and the horrors suffered by people in search of help during times of hardship.
The government weighed in and Loach’s BAFTA and Cannes Palme d’Or winning film was labelled “fiction”. Tweeting politicians criticised the movie for depicting a Britain where austerity and unemployment had led to more and more poverty-stricken people relying on the service of food banks to survive.
The message of the film was a stark warning, a mirror held up to the fractured state of the nation, and the reflection revealed a sharper truth than the one-sided view peddled in newspapers or late night political discussions on television screens.
This stage adaptation of I, Daniel Blake by actor and playwright Dave Johns is not only timely but it looks back to the time of the original film and makes the audience realise how prophetic Loach’s film was, there’s no fiction here, just hard reality, unvarnished and real, without any gloss or distortion.
Johns, who played the central character in Loach’s film, has written a stage version for English Touring Theatre which resonates with the current cost-of-living crisis, homelessness, uncaring politicians who blame the poor for their predicament, and the vast chasm between obscenely rich millionaires and the forgotten destitute who have no idea where their next meal is coming from.
The horrendous ravages of hunger, and how it impacts upon poor people and their dignity, is laid bare in the play and the depiction is real and unflinching.
The drama exposes how the political world seems to have no time for the poor, and if politicians somehow find a moment to glance at the issue of poverty they simply pass another set of laws to make it even tougher for those living on welfare benefits to access help and support.
In a world where compassion and understanding are rapidly being bled out of human experience by insincere, uncaring and callous politicians along comes a theatrical drama that shines a powerful spotlight on a topical message calling out for long overdue change for those whose lives and dreams have been blighted by poverty.
The story is simple and powerful, and every note and nuance feels like a page torn from a diary.
A man, who has been declared unfit for work by his doctor due to his poor health, is caught like a rat in a maze when he enters the labyrinth world of the benefits system which reeks of cruelty and inhumanity.
In his journey through a soul destroying jobcentre he meets a young mother and her child who are living on a harrowing hand-to-mouth existence. The play highlights the heartrending effects of child poverty and how it wrecks lives and forces individuals to make devastating decisions in their search to find food and shelter.
This production may lack a huge cast and crew but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in excellent characterisations and intense focus on the themes of the play.
David Nellist as Daniel, Jodie Wild as Daisy (and ensemble), Bryony Corrigan as Katie, and Kema Sikazwe as China (and ensemble), with Janine Leigh and Micky Cochrane playing ensemble, bring a startling authenticity to their roles. These are hardworking performers, all in tune with the emotional threads of the characters they’re playing, and each one of them adds details which enrich the play.
The quality of acting in this production is so real that at the climax it was as if the performers on stage were not actors but real people who had lived and experienced the roles that they had played. They had no need to resort to theatrical artifice to make their characters more convincing.
Designer Rhys Jarman’s staging keeps the story moving from scene-to-scene in an economical way so as to keep the focus of the audience on the drama and themes rather than spectacle and bombast which would result in diverting attention away from the heart of this powerful human story.
The video and projection designs by Nina Dunn and Matthew Brown are very effective in bridging the world of theatre to contemporary human existence that is moving at a hectic pace with social media technology. Overhead projections allowed tweets, emails and news headlines to be flashed across the stage in an emotionally gripping manner which commented on the unfolding drama.
Director Mark Calvert keeps the action flowing smoothly, and he prevents anything unhinging the finely tuned story and turning it into a soapy melodrama.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a 2022 report on poverty found that over 14 million Britons are living in poverty. Their stories of daily hardships, and enduring horrific abuse in their quest to find food and accommodation, remain largely untold.
I, Daniel Blake addresses the deafening silence and gives voice to the starving millions and its asks for compassion for those who have lost jobs, homes, families, and health, yet despite their deep grief and loss they still believe in the healing power of love and friendship.
If there’s only one play that you see at the theatre this year, make it this one.
I, Daniel Blake is now playing at The Birmingham Rep until Saturday 24 June