It is as if this adaptation of the Ken Loach movie has been suspended between quotation marks. Topping and tailing Mark Calvert’s heartfelt production is the claim by Damian Green, former secretary of state for work and pensions, that I, Daniel Blake was a “work of fiction”. Safer for a politician to assume this story was made up than to admit its central truth: that our benefits system is punitive and demeaning – and is designed to be that way.
This staging, adapted by the film’s star Dave Johns, refuses to let Britain’s leaders off the hook. The story of a decent man laid off because of heart problems, only to find a support system purpose-built to make his life difficult, is interspersed with verbatim remarks by politicians from George Osborne to Liz Truss. Whether it is David Cameron’s vacuous “big society,” Thérèse Coffey’s recommendation that the poor work “more hours” to pay for food or Lee Anderson’s assertion that people “can’t cook a meal from scratch”, the show repeatedly reminds us of the gulf between political rhetoric and life as it is lived.
The production is at its best in the Kafkaesque scenes in which the universal credit claimant – sorry, “customer user” – is confounded by automaton-like staff with fixed scripts and bewildering protocols. David Nellist in the title role has the same qualities Johns brought to the film; he is principled, reasonable and uncowed, not a natural troublemaker but too certain of his values to take any abuse lying down. Faced by Janine Leigh’s chillingly unyielding case worker, he makes a moving plea for compassion, one that is all the more infuriating because it falls on deaf ears.
In contrast, the heart of the play is in the sweet relationship between Blake and fellow claimants Katie (Bryony Corrigan) and daughter Daisy (Jodie Wild). They are similarly good people coping with extreme circumstances, taking the hit for problems not of their making. For all the warmth they generate, however, too many of their exchanges are introspective. They tell us of their troubles without fully dramatising them. Such moments are sad where the most galvanising scenes make us angry.