I, Daniel Blake

Oct 19 2023 | By More

★★★★☆      Furiously sad

Traverse: Tue 17 – Sat 21 Oct 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

The human tragedy and deep political conviction that distinguished the film of I, Daniel Blake are still very much there in the stage adaptation, touring to the Traverse this week only.

The production, by Tiny Dragon and English Touring Theatre in association with Northern Stage, is an adaptation of the celebrated 2016 film directed by Ken Loach.

David Nellist in I, Daniel Blake. Pic: Pamela Raith

Dave Johns, who has adapted Paul Laverty’s original screenplay, played Daniel in the Newcastle-set film and has experience in transferring movies to the stage – he and Owen O’Neill wrote the version of the Shawshank Redemption that has come to Edinburgh on several occasions.

Daniel Blake is a carpenter who has been told by his doctor after a heart attack that he is not well enough to work again yet. However, the DWP have other ideas, certifying him as fit for work. While he is stuck in a seemingly never-ending loop trying to appeal against the decision, he has to apply for jobs he can’t do in order to qualify for benefits.

sticks close to the original

He meets single mother Katie and her daughter Daisy, who have been given housing in Newcastle rather than London. Katie, unfamiliar with the city, is a few minutes late for an appointment and loses her benefits for four weeks as a result.

Johns understandably sticks close to the original story, with some updating to indicate how the system depicted is certainly kinder now to its ‘service users’, while the cost of living crisis has made the situation of Katie even worse.

David Nellist, Bryony Corrigan and Jodie Wild in I, Daniel Blake. Pic: Pamela Raith

The production begins and ends with the voice of Damian Green, the former Welfare Secretary, criticising the film while admitting he had never seen it, describing it as ‘work of fiction.’ Voices of other, more recent, politicians are heard in between scenes, with their gobbledygook about ‘opportunity’ echoed by fatuous government advertising that features as part of Matthew Brown’s impressive video design.

While there is no doubt politically that this demands still to be seen, it is not so certain that it needs to be done on stage. It does not always come across as fully theatrical in its own right, despite Johns’s careful writing, the fluency of Mark Calvert’s direction, the spare efficiency of Rhys Jarman’s metal shelving set and Simisola Majekodunmi’s stark lighting.

contemporary issues

The doubling necessitated on stage takes away a little from the impact, despite the excellent efforts of Janine Leigh and Micky Cochrane in a variety of roles, and of Kema Sikazwe who reprises his film role as Daniel’s neighbour China. It can be a trifle static at times, and never quite loses the air of a faithful adaptation.

The most obvious attempts to address more contemporary issues, in the outburst of a street philosopher late on, seem awkwardly tacked on.

Bryony Corrigan in I, Daniel Blake. Pic: Pamela Raith

However, there have been many much worse films put on stage recently, and at least nobody suggested making it a musical. Famously, the movie features hardly any music, and Ross Millard’s composition and Roma Yagnik’s sound design are subtly employed here.

In the end, what makes this so successful is the humanity that is depicted in the central performances. David Nellist’s Daniel is full of humour, anger and stubbornness, a well-meaning man who can be a little bit annoying. This is a gloriously rounded and believable performance.

Daisy is clearly an older character than she was in the film, but is still convincingly shown as vulnerable and wise beyond her years by Jodie Wild.


In many ways, the stage version has become much more Katie’s story, and Bryony Corrigan responds to this magnificently. She is suitably tragic without ever hinting at melodrama, and carries off potentially tricky scenes at the end of each act quite brilliantly. The close of the first half, after she has visited a food bank, and played alone on stage in almost complete darkness, is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre imaginable.

Which shows the impact of this production despite some drawbacks. And it is even more necessary than before, with the effects of the economic squeeze obviously extending to the arts – one of the play’s original co-producers, Oldham Coliseum, has been forced out of existence this year.

In so many ways things are worse now than in 2016. While before, politicians thought it necessary to apologise for causing tragedies like those depicted here, now they revel in it. The advice from the Tory candidate in the current Tamworth by-election to anyone in Katie’s situation is simply that she should get lost. Except he is not nearly that polite.

Running time: two hours and 5 minutes (including one interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 17 – Saturday 21 October 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm; Mat Sat: 2.30pm
Details and tickets: Book here.


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