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David Johns, Katie Corrigan and Kema Sikazwe (I, Daniel Blake)

I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a middle-aged widower who is denied benefits and deemed fit for work, despite recently suffering a major heart attack. Based on Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s 2016 film, Dave Johns (who made his name in the movie), has now adapted the film for the stage, which will be directed by Mark Calvert. Ahead of its national tour, we took the opportunity to speak to Dave Johns, alongside actors Bryony Corrigan (Katie) and Kema Sikazwe (China). When asked about the premise of I, Daniel Blake, Johns says “it’s about ordinary people caught in a welfare system that doesn’t listen to them, and that seems to be set up to thwart them. With the cost of living crisis and all that, it’s perfect timing.”

Since the film’s release, the number of food banks has increased dramatically and according to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation poverty report, 1 in 5 people (22%) in the UK are now living in poverty, with child poverty even higher at 31%, and the stage version aims to reflect on the finial pressures that people are under today. After the cast visited the West End Food Bank at the start of rehearsals, Bryony Corrigan (who plays Katie, the young single mother who forms a close friendship with Daniel) tells us “we spent time with some of the volunteers and met some of the people who used the food bank and heard their stories. It was really eye-opening.”

David Nellist will take on the role of Daniel “I’m a bit too old to remember all those lines” laughs Johns. “I wanted to pass it on to another actor.” However, Johns says “I’m a great fan of Paul Laverty. He has his finger on the pulse about politics, so for Paul to trust me with this story was a great honour.” Johns did not simply want to recreate the film on stage “I didn’t want it to be a period piece” he says. “We have this great team. It’s not going to be a kitchen-sink drama, it’s going to be quite stylised." The team includes designer Rhys Jarman, Ross Millard of post-punk band The Futureheads (who is writing the music), and AV design and projections by Matthew Brown of PixelLux (who recently worked on Bonnie and Clyde in the West End.) 

Taking a cue from British political campaign group Led by Donkeys, the production will use the Government’s own social media output to highlight its hypocrisy. “Their tweets will be projected on a huge billboard that is part of the set.” This enables the audience to see “what they’ve been saying about the benefits system, homelessness, and the cost of living crisis. And then, underneath it, we will see the lives of these people on stage, playing it truthfully.” David Johns explains  “when I told Ken about the tweets, his eyes lit up. When the film was released, MP Damian Green (then Secretary of State) was asked his opinions of the film in the House of Commons. He dismissed it as a work of fiction. But this is the truth of ordinary people’s lives.”

This play has been as thoroughly researched as Loach and Laverty’s film. Johns states “there’s nothing made up about this.” One of the things that the stage adaptation develops is the character of Katie, who has no choice but to be re-housed in Newcastle due to lack of affordable housing in London - “we’ve given Katie a bigger voice” says Johns. Corrigan explains “what Dave’s done so brilliantly is to flesh out her backstory a bit further. We get to learn a bit more about what has put Katie in these circumstances and what led her to end up where she is, and that has threaded within it a couple of other issues, such as domestic abuse and social housing.”

Having been spotted by Loach on a visit to Newcastle, Kema Sikazwe (aka rapper Kema Kay) played Daniel’s entrepreneurial neighbour China in the original film. He has gone on to make his name as a stage performer, writing a one-man show ‘Shine’ about growing up in the North East, and will return to play the part of China again on stage. Sikazwe says “It’s an honour to be invited back to I, Daniel Blake. To do it on stage, you get to be in the room with people who understand what’s going on.” When asked about the character, Sikazwe claims “I really connect with my character personally, because I know a lot of people who went through similar situations that China went through, and got fed up with the system, who knew that if they were given the opportunity and a fair chance, then things might be different.”

Sikazwe further explains “for me, it’s not just another acting job. It feels like we are telling a true story. It feels as if the system is intentionally set up to be impenetrable. It’s like they want you to give up.”

And yet, many of the people that titular character Daniel encounters as he tries to access his benefits are relatively sympathetic. The portrayal is certainly not “monstrously unfair” as Damian Green described it. “Many of them are victims of the system too. They’re trying to put food on the table and keep paying the mortgage, and they are being asked to implement a system that a lot of them probably feel is unfair” explains Johns. In one of the film’s key scenes, Daniel (out of desperation) spray paints a declaration on the wall of the job centre, as an act of protest. “Daniel’s not done anything like that before. He’s a law-abiding man, so it’s a big gesture. But when you’re not being listened to, you have no choice” Johns explains. He continues “this Government is constantly, stealthily, and sometimes not so stealthily, trying to take our right to protest. It’s literally stopping people from talking and being able to stand up for what they believe in and speak out on behalf of the oppressed.”

When asked about what they hope that people will take from the show, Sikazwe says “I hope it’ll make people more aware and spark debate about who they’re going to vote for.” Corrigan follows “I hope people will write to their MPs. And if you can get yourself to a food bank to volunteer, or donate a bit more and take a couple of quid out of your weekly shop and put it towards something extra for the food bank, the difference that makes is amazing. Food banks are down on their donations at the moment.' Johns finishes with “our enemies are not the people coming here on boats. People need to realise that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our society. We’ve been saying this since Dickens. A society is supposed to care, that is what a society should be. We should be generous, and not just give handouts, but put right the fundamental things that are wrong. I want people to get angry, I want them to be furious.”

I, Daniel Blake runs at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from the 14th November until the 18th November. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


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