This week I was lucky enough to head down to the Courtyard Theatre in Leeds for a performance of I, Daniel Blake, the show adapted from the Ken Loach film of the same name. The production is currently touring the country with a message that is just as relevant now as it was when the film was released in 2016.
As Dave Johns, the writer, said in our In Conversation Piece from last week, “Things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse”, in reference to the struggle people face when it comes to affordable housing, keeping the heating on, putting food on the table and being able to live, not just exist – a message echoed by the character of Katie, played by Bryony Corrigan.
Whilst the production is an adaptation of Loach’s film and there are several key story beats that are hit in both its versions, what the play manages to do is break free from the constraints that the nature of filmmaking naturally has – you look the characters in the eye, and you feel the anger in their voices and the pain behind their words in each scene. The play also manages to utilize its space in a highly effective way. There’s no need for extravagant set changes or explosive sequences. Instead, the set design adds to the idea of claustrophobia that the story presents and how people in these living conditions are stuck in their situation, feeling like the walls of their lives are closing in around them.
The performances are very well acted across the board, but a special mention must be given to David Nellist, who plays the role of Daniel Blake in the show,. He manages to take what Dave Johns did when he first played the role in the film and build upon it, making Daniel feel even more human and real. Daniel feels like a person who has lived a life, he’s worked hard, he fundamentally wants to help others and do the right thing, whatever the cost to his own pocket or life.
Nellist and Bryony Corrigan play well off each other and as each line of dialogue builds upon the next, they give each other hope. For Daniel, that hope comes through listening to Katie and her daughter, Daisy, sitting with them over dinner and telling stories about his late wife. For Katie and Daisy, the hope Daniel provides is through his compassion and loving nature, never putting himself before them, no matter what that means for his own life.
Throughout the performance, text is projected onto a backdrop, with quotes from real life individuals in relation to the state of the nation and the cost of living crisis. One of these quotes attempts to dismiss the story of I, Daniel Blake as fiction. However, whilst the story isn’t based on any one individual, the play is representative of more than just one man or one woman and her child. It’s a representation of all those examples and more. There are countless situations and circumstances that the production relates to without explicitly showcasing them and it does an extremely good job of this.
It’s clear to me that everyone involved in this production knows this story needs to be told in the hopes that one day it will be part of the conversation for change. The play showcases the fundamental good in people, especially through the character of Daisy, a child who still has a belief that life won’t always be like it is and things will improve, this aspect of the show further adds to the story of I, Daniel Blake because it provides a view of the world from the perspective of someone wholly good and innocent.
The show adds so much and builds on what came before in such an impactful way, and its story is more relevant today than it ever has been. Beyond the fact that it is a production clearly made with love, care and attention, it is also a story that needs to be heard. As the character of Daniel Blake says, “Seems you’ve always got to kick up an almighty ruckus, before people do the right thing”. If this play is anything, it’s an almighty ruckus and a story to be seen. I advise anyone who can to see this production. It’s so much more than a show, it’s a message and an outcry that must be heard.
I, Daniel Blake is at Leeds Playhouse Courtyard Theatre until 7 October.
Photography by Pamela Raith.