I, Daniel Blake - Northern Stage

“I don’t want handouts – just a bit of fucking hope”
June 1, 2023

I was at Northern Stage last night for the performance of I, Daniel Blake and having volunteered to review the production for Mag North (my first review for the publication), I suddenly found myself with first night nerves as I climbed the university steps leading to the Barras Bridge home of vital theatre making.

Exacerbated further by encountering the legendary Dave Johns almost as soon as I was in the building, I had to beat back longstanding Imposter Syndrome emotions. But in reality: this was my place. These are my people. And the story I was there to see last night is set in my city.

Although Johns is among the North East’s most loved creative champions and delivers one of the finest examples of Stand-Up and Improv you will see anywhere, he is also an accomplished actor (Palme D'Or at Cannes in 2016) and writes extensively for stage and screen.

And it’s his Film Festival recognition and the forensic study of society in his writing that brought us all together last night for Johns’ eagerly awaited stage adaptation of I, Daniel Blake – the 2016 Ken Loach directed film about the realities of navigating poverty and the welfare state in the 21st century under a Tory government.

Johns played Daniel Blake in the film that was meat-and-drink to Ken Loach: namely shining a spotlight on social inequality. A spotlight Loach first deployed in the 1960’s with landmark films Kes and Cathy Come Home.

And while Dave Johns as actor was galvanised by his performance alongside Hayley Squires in the film, it is Dave Johns as writer that might yet be his greatest moment – as I, Daniel Blake plays this week to sell-out audiences before touring and ultimately returning to Northern Stage in the autumn.

There cannot be enough ‘cap-doffing’ for the Byker-born brick-laying apprentice, whose first experience of theatre was as a schoolboy being taken to see ‘Death of a Salesman’ in the University Theatre (the forerunner to Northern Stage). However his stage adaptation has just as importantly, confirmed the quality and depth of professionalism of all those working in regional theatre.

Perhaps sacrilegious to make the suggestion, but for me David Nellist played Blake like no-one else could. The Wallsend-born actor has inhabited numerous stage and screen roles that have been applauded for more than two decades, but his recent work on Tyneside has been a tour-de-force.

‘Love It If We Beat Them’ at Newcastle’s Live Theatre in March introduced us to Nellist’s Len, a former miner and local Labour activist who had audiences daring to believe that things could only get better. Set in 1996, with a Kevin Keegan manged Toon, what could possibly go wrong?

Before that, his Theseus in last autumn’s  'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' at Northern Stage, alongside Nadine Shah, together with the exceptionally talented actors from ‘Not To Tame’ – and the voice of one David Morrissey – was another performance that made you want to pull him to your bosom (even if you don’t possess one).

As the heart attack ravaged carpenter, Nellist is more than exemplary. I’m not actually certain that the concern for others, his clear sense of right and wrong and his frustrations at being beaten at every turn by an unjust system – aren’t just the responses of the man himself, as opposed to the actor on the stage. If you’re of a certain age, you would definitely want to have a pint with Nellist (before possibly going on to get a tattoo). If you are younger you’ll wish he was your dad – as Daisy (played magnificently by Jodie Wild) no doubt does.

While Nellist might not have recent lived experience of the issues played out in I, Daniel Blake, as a Geordie, steeped in the environment that successive Tory governments have sought to decimate, his performance is as much documentary as drama. His emotion at the close made me want to leave my seat and hug him.

Bryony Corrigan And Janine Leigh

Bryony Corrigan plays opposite Nellist as the relocated single parent Kate – and again her ability to project desperation, panic and a sense of hopelessness, coupled with a determination (from God-knows-where) to keep carrying on, was just too real. Corrigan brings her accomplished sense of humour – and an uncanny ability to protect her on-stage daughter to the production in a way that might well leave you breathless.

As Kate’s child Daisy, Jodie Wild is innocent, hopeful and searches for the best in others, despite her young life having been exposed to trauma most of us could not comprehend. With an MA in Acting for Screen from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Wild is an actor that we must expect and hope to see more of in both our theatres and on screen.

Kema Sikazwe’s China was very special. This young Geordie actor has an incredible personal story, which we are thankfully about to hear much more of. He’s also exactly the type of guy you would buy your trainers from. He’s not only an entrepreneur, but has the stage presence and ability of someone twice his age.

Janine Leigh and Micky Cochrane play aggressive DWP staff with a frightening realism that leaves a sour taste in the mouth, however Cochrane’s monologue as Blake is arrested is a stand-out moment of the second act. His contemporary reference to ‘The People In Boats’ reminds us that this is Definitely Not Fiction.

When finally unravelling in front of Blake, Kate declares with unparalleled emotion that “I don’t want handouts – just a bit of fucking hope” and at that point I believed we had seen the moment of the performance, but in tears, Corrigan goes onto deliver a closing eulogy that must surely have stabbed everyone present. Reading Daniel’s words: “I don’t tug the forelock – but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can” followed by “I Daniel Blake, am a citizen. Nothing more. Nothing less” closed one of the most emotive, important and alarming pieces of theatre that you are likely to see this year.

The creative team including Director Mark Calvert, AV Designer Matthew Brown, Lighting Designer Simisola Majekodunmi, Sound Designer Roma Yagnik, together with Movement Director Martin Hylton and Wardrobe Supervisor Naomi Daley also richly deserved the standing ovation that came last night (and should be repeated for the run). The set and use of visuals was not only innovative, but hard-hitting and perfectly reinforced the enormity of Blake and Jenkins situation – and ours as a nation.

I, Daniel Blake plays at Northern Stage until 10 June before touring.

Header Image: David Nellist And Micky Cochrane