If, on opening night, the ill-suppressed sobbing in the darkness at Northern Stage wasn’t music to Dave Johns’ ears, then the standing ovation surely was. It was the climax to what must have been a nerve-wracking evening for the Geordie stand-up-turned-actor-turned-playwright.
Chosen by Ken Loach (who, notably, was out there in the darkness too on opening night, watching with researching/screenwriting accomplice Paul Laverty) to play the title role in I, Daniel Blake, Johns then won the director’s blessing to adapt his Palme D’Or- and BAFTA-winning film of 2016 for the stage.
The show tells of Dan, a decent man, who is forced to battle with the benefits system after suffering a heart attack. Despite being told not to work by his doctor, widower Dan is passed as fit to do so by the system. Daniel finds himself in a classic Catch-22 bind, forced to go through the motions of seeking work he’s unable to do.
The play, directed by Mark Calvert, opens like the film with the questions that effectively set the tone. Can Mr Blake raise his hand as if to put on a hat? Has he any pets? It would be funny if it weren’t laughable. In the Newcastle benefits office Dan encounters more victims of the system, Katie and daughter Daisy (Jodie Wild, making her professional debut), relocated from London and threatened with a sanction for being late for their appointment because they were lost. Helpful Dan intervenes. A tender friendship develops as the trio become beleaguered allies.
David Nellist, last seen on the Northern Stage in Elizabethan hose as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is perfectly equipped to don the mantle of a man who craves a bit of common sense in a world that has gone robotic. Bryony Corrigan impresses as the quietly proud and increasingly brittle Katie and the scene in the food bank which closes the first act is harrowing. Light relief comes from Kema Sikazwe (also known as rapper Kema Kay) who reprises his film role as China, out to buck the system by hawking discount trainers.
Inevitably, the stage production is more intensely focused than the film. Rhys Jarman’s set largely comprises mobile shelving while projected above are the words – which we also hear spoken – uttered by a succession of Prime Ministers and their Cabinet colleagues. All, of course, are Tories. One, Damian Green, when Work and Pensions Secretary, reminded the Commons that I, Daniel Blake was “a work of fiction”. “This is not fiction” is the slogan emblazoned across the play posters.
Able to retort to the responses to the film, the play can be said to ‘out-Loach’ Loach in its efforts to speak truth to power. Of course, not all those who staff the welfare system are unfeeling. Of course, many people have benefited from Universal Credit. Of course, there will be some who cheat the system (some being multi-millionaires). But a tangible thread of cold anger runs through this production. The Dans and Katies have not gone away. Far from it.
After a tour taking in Birmingham, Manchester and Exeter, it returns in the autumn for a much longer one.