I Love You, Mum - I Promise I Won't Die

A play by Mark Wheeller

In May 2014, just months after Dan died, the DSM Foundation commissioned award-winning playwright Mark Wheeller to write a verbatim play about what happened to him. The title uses Dan’s last words to his mother Fiona, before he left home for what turned out to be the last time: ‘I Love You, Mum – I Promise I Won’t Die’. In March 2016 the play had its first public performances, in Southampton and London, with its premiere at the BRIT school, just a mile from Dan’s home in Croydon.

 

The play was published by Bloomsbury (Methuen Drama) in 2017. Since then it has been being studied, taught and performed in schools, colleges and community youth theatres across the UK and as far away as Australia, Tasmania and Vancouver, and at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2018, gaining two five-star official reviews.

 

We’re very excited that from September 2022 it will be one of seven set texts on the Eduqas GCSE drama syllabus, alongside Shakespeare, JB Priestly, Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah.

I Love You, Mum - I Promise I Won't Die play cover

Mark has been writing successful plays since the 1980s, and writes powerfully for young people, using Theatre in Education to communicate about issues that affect them. His plays are extensively used in the drama curriculum in schools, he has been one of the playwrights recommended in the Edexcel GCSE drama syllabus for many years. Two of his plays, ‘Hard to Swallow’ and ‘Missing Dan Nolan’, are set texts on two out of four of the GCSE drama (9-1) specifications for 2016, along with William Shakespeare, Bertold Brecht and Willy Russell. His play ‘Too Much Punch for Judy’, written in 1987, is one of the most performed contemporary plays in the UK.

For ‘I Love You Mum, I Promise I Won’t Die’, Mark used verbatim theatre to take the actual words of Dan’s family and friends, recorded in a series of interviews, which were painstakingly transcribed and then turned into the script of this two-act play. He took eighteen months developing the script and performance with Oasis Youth Theatre, based in Southampton. Through his incredible skill, and the huge talent and commitment of the young people and team of Oasis Youth Theatre, these raw words were transformed into a stunning performance that brought the audience to tears at each of its performances.

Drama is an incredibly powerful way to communicate important messages to young people, and Mark Wheeller’s play has become a core part of our vision to enable young people to understand the risks, and potential consequences and impact of experimenting with drugs. The final play, however, is as much about love, friendship, forgiveness and loss, as it is about drugs.

Mark was on record early on as saying this is by far the best play he had written to date, partly at least because he feels the words he was given by all those involved, Dan’s family and friends, are so open, honest and eloquent. In fact, it became two plays – or one two-act play – because Mark felt he had too much strong material in the testimonies he’d recorded to limit it to only one. The first play / part, ‘I Love You Mum’, focuses on Dan’s friends and school, the night at the rave, the impact on everyone who knew him. 

The second play/ part, ‘I Promise I Won’t Die’, is the words of Dan’s family, and his long-term girlfriend Jenna and her family. This play moves back in time, encompassing the trial and sentencing of the drug dealer, the funeral, the time in the hospital, and ends with his mother, Fiona, remembering her beloved son.

What Mark Wheeller says about the play:

Gail is Dead was a TV programme my 4th year class (Year 10) was shown back in 1974. I remember it vividly. It became the bedrock of my unequivocal attitude towards drug misuse. (It’s still there on YouTube). This programme also became the standard bearer for all the “message” plays I have written since then. If this story can make such an impact on me, surely these stories will also impact on others? I have never had the opportunity to do my own drug education play… until I was asked to tell this tragic tale. I jumped at the chance.

The newly formed Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation originally approached me to write it for Dan’s own school to perform. I hope they will one day. It soon became obvious that it would be better to have some distance between the real event and first performers and so the idea was mooted for OYT to perform it. Dan’s family’s loss became our opportunity to generate a legacy production for the DSMF. It has, throughout, been a challenging but always worthwhile process.

One of the beneficial side effects of involvement in such a project is the relationships we form, both within OYT and with Dan’s friends and family who have come to see what we have been doing at various points in the rehearsal process. I am certain that we will all cherish not only lifelong memories, but relationships formed as a result of challenging collaborations.

It is my hope above everything that Dan’s family and friends can find some solace from the production and the hope that something good may come out of such an appalling tragedy.

What Dan’s parents say about the play:

When Dan’s drama teacher, Izzy Forrester, suggested in the early months after Dan died that we consider drama as a powerful means of communicating with young people, we have to confess it wasn’t something we’d really thought about. Dan loved drama though, he was really good at it, and this was something we knew he’d have been wholeheartedly behind. Nevertheless, it was a huge step for us to entrust this precious story of our lovely son, who isn’t here to speak for himself, into the hands of someone who would recreate it. From the very start Mark has shown the great integrity, sensitivity and respect for truth that we needed in order to know these were safe hands. He has also been very mindful of the pain for us in this process and product.

The play soon became an integral part of our personal journey since losing Dan, as well as becoming at the heart of the work of the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation. For us, although deeply painful to re-inhabit the worst moments of our lives in this way, it has been an incredibly rich and rewarding process, which has brought us people who care about Dan, who feel they know him without ever having met him, who care about the fact that he died, who feel the wrongness of this. It can feel very selfish to us at times, but the power of the play to create such strength of relationship is the very power it will have to change hearts and minds. The play embodies our passion and commitment to do all we can, as Dan’s mum and dad, and as founders of the charity that bears his name, to make this very bad, wrong thing do as much good as it possibly can, and to tell our boy’s story in the hope that others will learn the lesson he’s not here to learn. Through the play he can tell them himself.

Feedback from school productions:

“I think the most important things are first that the audience was given a life-changing, perhaps life-saving, experience, and second that you have really helped make someone’s shortened life somehow have lasting value. Time to reflect. Drama should be that important.”

Pipers Corner School, High Wycombe

“Being able to spread the sycamore seeds has had a more profound impact on our students than I could have hoped for. I have taught Drama for over 20 years now, and have lost count of how many plays I have directed, but the impact at the end of last night's performance on both cast and audience was something I have never experienced in education. We wish you and your family all the very best for the future and we will continue to do what we can to tell Dan's story.”

Paul Stevens, Assistant Principal (Teaching and Learning), Wootton Upper School & Arts College

"As a parent of a teenage daughter I try to educate her in the dangers of drugs amongst other things but sometimes feel that I get the "Yeah Mum. I'm not that stupid" attitude but sitting there with her last night and seeing how much it affected her emotionally and the conversation we had after made me think that she's not. Watching her peers performing a true story about a situation she could find herself in really hit home and a conversation she had with a friend later that night confirmed that she had taken everything in and was scared she could in the future have to deal with something like this."