I, Daniel Blake

Traverse Theatre,


Neil Cooper

Four stars

Scroungers are everywhere in Dave Johns’ heartfelt adaptation of director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty’s 2016 film, in which Johns played the title role of Geordie everyman Dan.

Mercifully, none of these appear in the flesh in Johns’ tragic tale of how a humble man with a big heart is broken by the Kafkaesque iniquities of the UK benefits system.

Rather, their state sanctioned platitudes punctuate each scene with a litany of fake news that lays bare their lack of empathy with those caught in the poverty trap. At least three of those voices belong to former Westminster prime ministers.

Matthew Brown’s audio-visual design is one of the tricks used by Johns and director Mark Calvert to bring home the fact that I, Daniel Blake has lost none of its currency since the film version first appeared. Things, indeed, have probably got worse instead of better since then. This despite one of the voices pointing out that Loach and Laverty’s film is fiction.

Those words that frame Calvert’s production may be technically correct, but what comes between them lays bare some very hard home truths.

These are brought into view by way of David Nellist’s heartrending performance as Dan, a man pushed to the limit after a heart attack by a system that declares him fit for work despite his near-death experience.

Bryony Corrigan’s single mum Katie and her daughter Daisy, played by Jodie Wild, are in a similar plight. Local kid China, meanwhile, with Kema Sikazwe reviving his role from the film, embraces an entrepreneurial spirit. The shelves of Rhys Jarman’s set may be increasingly bare, but a kind of mini community is formed to support each other.

Originally co-produced by tiny dragon Productions with Birmingham Rep and Oldham Coliseum, this touring version sees tiny dragon join forces with English Touring Theatre in association with Northern Stage for a heartbreaking story of our times.

The words Dan leaves behind give voice to those marginalised in a way that goes beyond fiction in a devastating rendering of how we live now.