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Moving and powerful theatre for our troubled times. Review: I, Daniel Blake at Royal and Derngate, Northampton.

By Karin Johnstone

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief. I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so.” So states the eponymous Daniel Blake.

Kathy and Daisy, played by Bryony Corrigan and Jodie Wild – All photography by Pamela Raith

Seven years have passed since Ken Loach’s award-winning film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ highlighted the inflexibility of a benefit system in this country which feels like it was designed to debase human beings and keep people in poverty. Is the message of this narrative still relevant today?

Playwright, Dave Johns, like Loach, clearly believes it is, since he has adapted the original screenplay into a stage play. This play is not just about low-income households but NO income households. Absolute poverty in 2023.

John’s message is made stronger by screen projections and verbatim parliamentary recordings of Tory ministers’ statements; Cameron, Johnson, Truss et al, all with a shocking social commentary that highlights their absolute lack of compassion and understanding of working-class people struggling to survive. The opening projection from Damian Green, previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, states that ‘…it is a work of fiction; it is not a documentary and bears no relationship to the modern benefit system…’ a comment he made when asked to comment on the film narrative. (He later found himself in the headlines for his own questionable behaviour).

This play follows the characters desperately trying to negotiate a system to get money to live. Protagonist Daniel Blake has been told by his doctor that he can’t go back to work after a recent heart attack. When he’s in the job centre trying to make a benefits claim, he meets Kathy and her daughter, who have just arrived in Newcastle from London due to housing shortages. Late for her job centre appointment, she has been told that her claim has been sanctioned and she will have no money for a month. After trying to argue her case, Daniel forms a friendship with Kathy and her daughter. The friendship embodies the sheer generosity of spirit of Daniel.

This kindness is portrayed in a touching way by David Nellist. The performance of Bryony Corrigan playing the mother Katie has many hard-hitting scenes. It’s hard to watch as Katie comes out of the food bank and is so starving, having sacrificed her own needs for her daughter, that she opens a can of beans and starts eating them straight out of the tin. For anyone who has experienced this type of hunger this performance will be upsetting to watch. Choices are clearly limited for all the characters, even young China, Dan’s neighbour and wannabe entrepreneur, selling dodgy trainers to subsidise zero hours contracts, engagingly portrayed by Kema Sikazwe.

The utilitarian set designed by Rhys Jarman, is a simple backdrop of utilitarian shelving seamlessly transforming the stage from a flat, to job centre to foodbank. It doesn’t interfere with the intension of director, Mark Calvert, who has created absorbing performances. Calvert hoped that the audience would feel anger and outrage. I came out of the performance spewing with rage but with little hope that this fiasco will change the bleak horizon anytime soon.

You may come out of this performance furious, or maybe agree with former Tory Minister Green that ‘this is a work of fiction’. Either way, it’s hard to argue with shocking stats from the Trussell Trust charity. The charity provided almost three million emergency food parcels to families, in the year ending March 2023. In conjunction with this charity the box office at the theatre is accepting food donations for the Hope Centre while this show is running. Go and see this while you can, take a box of something for the food bank, and you’ll fully understand the power of live theatre.

‘I Daniel Blake’ is showing at Royal & Derngate until Saturday 4th November.

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