Jessica Harris watches an emotional-filled modern classic at Birmingham Rep.
The UK in 2023. A time when the rising cost of living is affecting many, when the number of foodbanks is rising exponentially, and when the economic outlook seems fragile. Against this backdrop, I Daniel Blake, a contemporary stage production of Ken Loach’s 2016 film, is both relevant and shocking.
Shining a light on the UK’s benefits system, I Daniel Blake reveals the Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which people in need find themselves, and the all too real impact it has on their lives.
On the receiving end of blow after blow, Dan, an older man with a heart condition, and Katie, single mother and a Londoner who has just been allocated social housing in Newcastle, navigate the maze of Universal Credit, Job Seekers Allowance and Employment & Support Allowance. And they become entangled in the myriad of rules and restrictions that go with this. Half an hour late because you’ve travelled from London on the night coach to a city you’ve never been to before and got lost trying to find the Jobcentre? A four-week sanction and loss of benefits. Under doctor’s orders not to work until your heart condition is better? Attend an interview where you are asked if you can press a telephone keypad and told to go back to work.
Meanwhile, rhetoric and slogans trotted out by politicians, and shown as tweets on a screen above the stage, pull no punches: “There is a myth in this country that people on Universal Credit are in poverty”; the UK is “strong, prosperous, united”; we are on verge of “a New Golden Age for the UK.”
Remarkably, the characters get up time after time, clutching at straws of hope. There is money to be made if you sell your body through an escort agency. Or, in this brave new world, you can get rich quick as an entrepreneur. The play also shows that, at times of need, it is often those who have very little themselves who come forwards to help others. Dan befriends Katie and her daughter Daisy, making a heater from a candle and flower-pot on which Daisy can warm her hands, and putting bubble rap on the windows to keep out the cold.
The production is lifted by moments of wry humour, and by the warmth of relationships between the characters. China, using a rap number to sell knocked-off trainers, is gently mocked by Dan. Dan teaches Katie and Daisy how to speak proper Geordie.
But the true nature of poverty is hard to hide. Feeding Daisy and Dan before herself, Katie, shaking from hunger, tears the lid off a can of beans in the foodbank and eats them cold. Following a sanction, Dan’s flat is stripped as he pawns his belongings to get by.
Ultimately, Dan’s heart gives out the day before his appeal. But his message of defiance remains. The words he wanted to say at his appeal are read by Katie at his funeral: I am not a ‘client’ of a benefits system; I am not a scrounger. I have the right to be treated with respect and dignity.
Does the production succeed in moving you, in making you angry at the injustice of the system? Yes to both. And Yes to whether it makes you feel that people have the right to be treated with decency and humanity.
David Nellist gives a thoroughly grounded and convincing performance as Dan, Bryony Corrigan as Katie is alternately desperate, angry and hopeful whilst Kema Sikazwe as China is the young and zestful would-be entrepreneur.
I Daniel Blake was directed by Mark Calvert. The writer/adaptor was Dave Johns. It is at the Rep until 24th June, and then on tour nationally. For further information visit birmingham-rep.co.uk.
Pics: Pamela Raith Photography.