An Interview with Dave Johns and the Cast of I, Daniel Blake
Writer Dave Johns and actors Bryony Corrigan and Kema Sikazwe talk to Natasha Tripney about the uncomfortable truths at the heart of I, Daniel Blake…
“Things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse,” says Dave Johns, the comedian and former brickie who made his name in the critically acclaimed film I, Daniel Blake.
The hard-hitting story of a middle-aged widower who is denied benefits and deemed fit for work despite recently suffering a major heart attack was brought to the screen by writer Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach, winning a Palme D’or at Cannes in 2016.
Johns has now adapted the film for the stage in a new production directed by Mark Calvert. And it heads to Leeds Playhouse from 3-7 October as part of a national tour.
I, Daniel Blake, says Johns, is a film “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. To honour the themes of the play, the Playhouse has become a collection point for Leeds East & South Food Bank, which supported more than 14,000 local people with emergency food in 2022-23. That was a 30% increase on the previous year. According to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation poverty report, 1 in 5 people in the UK are now living in poverty, with lone parents by far the most likely of any family type to be struggling.
“We spent time with volunteers and met people who used food banks and heard their stories,” says Bryony Corrigan, who plays Katie, the young single mother who forms a close friendship with Daniel. “It was really eye-opening.”
“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,” says Johns, whose film role is played by David Nellist on stage. “I’m a bit too old to remember all those lines.”
Johns did not simply want to recreate the film on stage. “I didn’t want it to be a period piece. We have this great team (including designer Rhys Jarman, music by Ross Millard from Sunderland post-punk band The Futureheads, and AV design and projections by Matthew Brown for PixelLux who recently worked on Bonnie and Clyde in the West End. So, it’s not just a kitchen-sink drama; it’s quite stylised.”
“The truth of ordinary people’s lives”
Taking a cue from British political campaign group Led by Donkeys, the production uses the government’s own social media output to highlight its hypocrisy. “Their tweets are projected on a huge billboard that’s part of the set; what they’ve been saying about the benefits system, homelessness, and the cost-of-living crisis,” Johns explains. “And then we see the lives of the people on stage, playing it truthfully. When I told Ken [Loach] about the tweets, his eyes lit up.”
When the film was released, MP Damian Green, then Secretary of State, was asked his opinion of it. In the House of Commons, he dismissed the film as “a work of fiction.”
“But this is the truth of ordinary people’s lives,” says Johns, citing the thorough research Loach and Laverty carried out. “There’s nothing made up about this.”
The stage adaptation further develops the character of Katie. She’s had no choice but to be rehoused in Newcastle because there was no affordable housing in London. Bryony Corrigan who plays Katie explains, “What Dave’s done so brilliantly is to flesh out her back story. We learn more about what led her to end up where she is, threaded in a couple of other issues, such as domestic abuse and social housing.”
“It feels like we’re telling a true story”
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. He’s reprising his role on stage. “It’s an honour to be invited back. To do it on stage, you get to be in the room with people who understand what’s going on.
“I really connect with my character personally, because I know a lot of people who went through similar situations 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,” he says. “For me it’s not just another acting job. It feels like we’re telling a true story.”
In one of the film’s key scenes, Daniel spray-paints a declaration on the wall of the job centre. It’s an act of protest. “Daniel’s not done anything like that before,” explains Johns. “He’s a law-abiding man, so it’s a big gesture. But when you’re not being listened to, you have no choice.
“I want people to get angry. I want them to be furious”
“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.”
What do they hope people will take from the stage show?
“I hope it’ll make people more aware and spark debate about who they’re going to vote for,” says Sikazwe.
“I hope people will write to their MPs,” says Corrigan. “And if you can get yourself to a food bank to volunteer, or donate a bit more or 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.”
“Our enemies are not the people coming here on boats. People need to realise that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our society.” says Johns. “A society is supposed to care. 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.”
Between 3-7 October I, Daniel Blake is in the Courtyard theatre at Leeds Playhouse.
Book via box office on 0113 213 7700 or online at leedsplayhouse.org.uk.