Theatre reviews: I, Daniel Blake | Disfunction | Stick Man
Disfunction, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
Stick Man, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ***
BACK IN THE mid 19th century, it took a writer of genius – Charles Dickens – to begin to shift British public opinion towards the view that the human cost of industrial revolution was becoming unacceptable, and a fundamental front to humanity. In that sense, Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake is a kind of Dickens novel for our times; a story that takes the UK’s shocking poverty crisis, exacerbated by a cruel and inadequate benefits system, and gives it a human face, in the shape of a middle-aged Geordie carpenter, Daniel Blake, who has just suffered a heart attack, and has been told by his doctor not to return to work until he is fully well.
Caught in the Kafka-esque toils of the benefits system, Daniel finds that he cannot heed his doctor’s advice without being “sanctioned” as a work-shy scrounger; and his only consolation lies in the friendship he strikes up, at the benefits office, with a young single Mum called Katie, who finds herself similarly destitute.
In a sense, the fact that I, Daniel Blake exists at all, as a story, is a terrible indictment of the neo-Victorian levels of disbelief, indifference and even hostility with which many people in the UK now view those in poverty; and the fact that Northern Stage in Newcastle have felt impelled to transform it into a new touring stage version – updated for the current profound cost of living crisis – is another cause for shame.
For the show itself, though – now at the Traverse – no praise is high enough, as writer Dave Johns, director Mark Calvert, and a terrific cast led by David Nellist and Bryony Corrigan, take the story of Dan and Katie and transform it into a brisk, compelling and heartbreaking two hours of theatre. It would be good, of course, to be able to say that the friendship between the two characters helps them both to survive into better times. Poverty, though, both shortens lives, and drives once decent people into places they never dreamed they would go; and I, Daniel Blake offers an ending as truthful as the rest of the story, in its complexity, and its profound sorrow.
If our society has become increasingly dysfunctional, then the family at the centre of Kate Bowen’s new Play, Pie And Drama somehow find themselves on the brink of turning deep dysfunctionality into a nice little earner. Two ageing and bankrupt sisters, Melanie and Moira, are about to lose their family home; but Melanie has invented a truth-or-dare board game called Disfunction that Moira’s god-daughter Tanya has persuaded them to pitch to an international games corporation, via a Zoom link. Truth to tell, though, the round of Disfunction they demonstrate – emotionally savage and devastating as it is – makes so little sense as a game that the play itself suffers from the same problem; and that despite the stellar presence of Maureen Carr and Maureen Beattle as the sisters, doing their impressive best to extract maximum meaning from a memorably messy and baffling show.
Julia Donaldson’s famous children’s story Stick Man also makes very little sense, when you think about it; but thinking is the last thing audiences of any age should attempt, when it comes to Freckle Productions’s engaging touring stage version of the tale. Playing at the Lyceum this holiday week, the show is far too self-consciously cutesy and ironic for its own good; but it offers plenty of jolly moments of participation which the young audience adore, and finally offers the kind of happy ending that brings tears to the eyes – if only because, these days, it seems so improbable, and so rare.
I, Daniel Blake at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 21 October. Disfunction at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 21 October, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-28 October. Stick Man at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 22 October.
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