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Review: I, Daniel Blake at Liverpool Playhouse ****

“All we need is some bloody common sense here,” points out a frustrated Daniel Blake in an early encounter with the machinery of (welfare) state.

But alas for Daniel, common sense – and indeed common humanity – seems in short supply in the ‘computer says no’ world of benefits, tax credits and punitive sanctions.

Rather like Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From the Blackstuff (a stage version of which is, coincidently, playing around the corner at the Royal Court) before it, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake pulled few punches when it burst on to cinema screens in 2016.

And this stage version, adapted from Paul Laverty’s screenplay by Dave Johns who played Daniel on film, is similarly plain speaking.

Perhaps even more so, with the pronouncements of various politicians, including Lee Anderson’s infamous 30p meals claim, simultaneously broadcast and beamed on a big screen where they stand in stark juxtaposition to the action unfolding below.

Geordie widower Daniel (David Nellist) is a 59-year-old carpenter seeking support after being advised by his doctor to recuperate following a heart attack, but who is deemed fit for work by a box ticking computer algorithm and who finds himself thrown into a Kafkaesque battle with a labyrinthine, one-size-fits-all welfare system.

Meanwhile single mum Katie (Bryony Corrigan) and daughter Daisy (Jodie Wild) are newly arrived in Newcastle where they have been relocated from London to get their own council accommodation.

The two worlds collide at the jobcentre, where Daniel intervenes after witnessing Katie being sanctioned for lateness by its unyielding staff, and a tentative friendship and support bubble slowly blooms as they forge a fragile existence on the poverty-riven fringes of society.

Above: David Nellist as Daniel Blake with, from left, Bryony Corrigan (Katie) and Jodie Wild (Daisy). Top: I, Daniel Blake. Photos by Pamela Raith Photography.

Nellist is quietly – but hugely - impressive as Daniel, bringing palpable warmth and empathy, and wry humour, to a proud and decent but bemused working man thrown into an impossible and spiralling situation from which there appears no escape.

Similarly, Corrigan shines as the mum who has been dealt a raw deal by life but battles on determined to create a better world for her own daughter. Her descent into despair at the end of the first half is visceral and heart-rending and it almost feels indecent to applaud the scene as lights go down.

In fact, the central story is portrayed with such nuance that I’m not convinced the play really needs the polemic – delivered with furious conviction by Micky Cochrane’s homeless man in the second half, however crowd pleasing it may be.

It certainly garners applause, but perhaps more telling is the sound of sniffing in the stalls that suggests the production has genuinely moved its audience.

Catch it at the Playhouse this week – and if you’re going, the theatre is collecting tinned and packaged goods for a local foodbank.


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