Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake is to be adapted for a stage production written by the film’s star. Dave Johns, who played the title role on screen in 2016, said that in researching his new version of the story he found its portrait of poverty more relevant than ever as the UK’s cost-of-living crisis is “making it even harder for those who are already struggling”.
The play will have its premiere in May at Northern Stage in Newcastle, the city where I, Daniel Blake was set. It will then go on a UK tour.
In Loach’s polemical 2016 film, Johns played a widowed joiner who has a heart attack, finds himself ineligible for employment and support allowance, and befriends a young single mother, Kate, who has been uprooted from London. Written by Paul Laverty, it was praised for its starkly vivid account of Tory austerity and brutal takedown of a dehumanised, dysfunctional benefits system.
Johns, who grew up in Newcastle and worked as a bricklayer, became well known as a standup comedian but I, Daniel Blake brought him worldwide fame as he entered his 60s. He said he was thrilled to have been asked to adapt Laverty’s screenplay. “But I didn’t just want to put the film on stage – I wanted to update the story for 2022.” During his research for the new version, he continued, “it was disheartening to find not much had changed at all since the film’s release. The story is still as relevant as it was in 2016; maybe even more so now with the cost-of-living crisis making it even harder for those who are already struggling to find a way out of poverty. Daniel and Kate’s story could be anyone’s.”
The play aims to show the kindness, compassion, humour and hope “that can help us through the toughest of times”, Johns added. It will focus in particular on the family unit formed by Daniel and Kate, who moves with her young children to Newcastle from London in her search for council housing.
The play’s director Mark Calvert said that they wanted to honour the film while giving audiences a fresh perspective on the “ramifications of the last 12 years of government on people’s lives”. The production will feature “factual interviews, speeches and social media output showing the impact of government decisions on real people’s lives. Because with 14.5 million people now living in poverty in the UK, this is not fiction. It is reality.”
Loach said: “This story is more relevant now than ever. And who better to put it on stage than Dave Johns, the original Daniel Blake?”
The play will be made in association with the company Cardboard Citizens, which makes theatre with and for homeless people and whose past productions include a version of Loach’s landmark film Cathy Come Home, staged in 2016.
Natalie Ibu, who was announced as the new artistic director at Northern Stage in 2020, said that I, Daniel Blake was part of a season of work focusing on community and “how we gather and how we define ourselves”. In April Ibu will direct a play called Protest by Hannah Lavery, inspired by memories of the demonstrations that the playwright went on with her mother when she was growing up. Protest will tour after its run at Northern Stage.