Review: I, Daniel Blake at Northern Stage
Living North's Arts Editor joined the audience at the sold-out world premiere of I, Daniel Blake
I’ve been Arts Editor at Living North Magazine for three years now, and I’ve seen plenty of theatre shows during that time. I can hands down say this is the most emotional I’ve ever been as an audience member. When we were given our tickets at Northern Stage after spotting Ken Loach (who was outside chatting with broadcast journalists), we were told to take tissues in with us. I took that in jest but regretted not taking the advice later.
Dave Johns, who played Dan in the 2016 award-winning Ken Loach film, has adapted this story for stage as we find ourselves battling a cost-of-living crisis and the themes are still just as (or even more) relevant today. The production follows Dan’s journey, as the film does, but we learn a lot more about Katie and her daughter. Dan becomes like a father figure to Katie, as they find themselves in what Dave calls ‘the nightmare of the benefit system’.
Having seen the film a few times (and after speaking with Dave) we had an idea of what to expect but we were curious as to how the film would be made theatrical. In fact, it wasn’t theatrical at all. It was raw, honest and stripped back – the most beautiful (if, at times, painful to watch) kind of production to convey such a poignant message.
Simple but effective staging was moved seamlessly to turn Dave’s home into Katie’s flat and then the job centre and the food bank. There were no loud effects or bright lights to distract us just subtle music, an impressive rap from Dan’s neighbour China, and a high-pitched sound at the most heartbreaking moments which kept the audience unsettled.
Projections of politicians’ speeches in the form of tweets and posters contrasted with the stark reality being played out on stage. Any one of us in that room, any one of us at all, could find ourselves in the same position as Dave and/or Katie.
But it was down to the actors’ talent that this story was so well told. What a cast it was. A special shout out must go to Bryony Corrigan for her heart-rending portrayal of Katie. The script was powerful, precise and very Geordie (and had just enough of Dave’s humour in it to not distract from the message) but we could tell the characters (and, more importantly, the actors playing them) meant every word they were saying. We felt their anger, their upset and their pain in every word and action they made. We laughed when they laughed and cried when they cried and in the final scenes I was a blubbering mess, but I looked around and I wasn’t the only one. It’s not easy to make grown men (and women) cry with a theatre production, but Dave Johns and his incredible cast did it.
Dave has been hitting headlines recently by saying he wants to ‘make people angry’ with this production. I can’t speak for everyone in that room, but I was feeling all sorts of emotions when I left Northern Stage that night. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, everyone needs to see this show.