DAVE Johns was 59 before he became a film star – “the first ever called Dave” – with Ken Loach’s multi-award-winning benefits scandal story, I, Daniel Blake.

Now, the comedian turned actor/writer has taken the concept and turned it into a theatre play.  But he says this is not a period piece. The Geordie has set the story in contemporary times, and argues the tale is even more relevant today.

“Since the film’s release the number of food banks has increased dramatically,” he maintains. “That’s why I want the play to make people angry. And I make no apology for it being political because politics runs through everything.”

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He adds; “I want people to see what is being done to ordinary people. As an artist you do research. You stage a piece of work, and you present it and say, ‘This is what we have found, how does that make you feel?’”

The play follows the screenplay in telling of Daniel, who is denied Employment and Support Allowance despite having had a heart attack and been declared unfit to work by his doctor. And we follow his struggle to navigate the bureaucracy and apathy of a gutted and underfunded welfare state.  Meanwhile, Katie has just arrived from London.

She has finally got a council house for her and the children. It’s a fresh start. But she too is slaughtered by the system. And we watch as their desperate lives connect.  Yes, it’s a grim story. But Johns is aware of not blasting theatre audiences with an evening of unrelenting misery. “You have to give the audience some light relief from tragedy, it helps to punctuate the awful things that happen to Katie and Dan,” he says, smiling. 

“Humour is something that gets Dan through the day. To be able to laugh – this is his escape valve. He is worn down eventually, but still tries to see humour, even when it’s dark.” The writer adds: “We all use it as a coping mechanism; I don’t know how anyone who lives their lives without humour.”

Dave Johns knows the world of desperation. “When I left school at 15, my father told me he had an interview set up for me as an apprentice bricklayer.” And so, the teenager slapped mortar on to bricks. Badly. “Rather than let me build houses on the new estates, the building company told me to build manholes. That’s all I did for two years, on my own.”

After leaving the building work, Johns drifted into a range of jobs. But he felt the pull of the performance world. “One day I saw an ad for the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, who were looking  for someone to work the flies and build the sets.”

From there, he decided to build his own version of London’s Comedy Store – in the Tyne Theatre bistro. Johns booked comedy acts such as Jack Dee, but money was so tight he once paid Dee £30 out of his own dole money.  Since then, his writing talent has developed, and he knew he had to revisit the story of Daniel and adapt Paul Laverty’s screenplay. “Paul has his finger on the pulse about politics, so for Paul to trust me with this story was a great honour,” he says, is delighted voice.  Yet, despite playing Daniel in the film, Dave Johns doesn’t feel he has to recreate his role for this theatre tour. “Daniel is played by David Nellist on stage,” he says, smiling. “I’m a bit too old to remember all those lines.”

I, Daniel Blake, The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 17-21. 

When a game turns brutal  

FINANCIAL desperation is also the powerful theme contained in new play, Disfunction.  Kate Bowen’s “brutal comedy” centres around a board game called Disfunction, created and perfected over decades by two sisters who decide to unleash the family “fun” on the world when they are at risk of losing their home.  When the sisters and their goddaughter test the game together to win over investors, their relationships are pushed to the limit – and truths are revealed as they desperately seek financial security. 

What we come to realise is how the need for money and stability can destroy families. Kate Bowen expands: “Disfunction explores what happens when who you really are is the opposite to the role you were given as a child, or the persona you had to adopt to survive in your family.  “The two siblings’ tactics to manage being with each other are so extreme, and have been going on so long, that they are, I hope, compelling, shocking and darkly funny to watch.”

Disfunction features Maureen Beattie OBE, Maureen Carr and Betty Valencia.  A Play Pie and A Pint, Oran Mor, until Saturday. 


When We Were Young, The Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, October 17.

The play takes the audience back to 1990s Glasgow where gang culture was at its worst. It’s described as ‘a nostalgic emotional rollercoaster,’ and ‘both a hilarious and eye-opening look back at Glasgow - as well as a heart-breaking story of stolen youth.’