All of Us at the National Theatre – review
Francesca Martinez's play finally opens in London after being delayed by the pandemic
There is no clearer role to play for our National Theatre than to honestly reflect the woes, strife and challenges of our nation at any given time. So in what has been a somewhat patchy year for the NT it is both tough and rewarding to see a piece of new writing that shines a light on the inequality and prejudice that people living with disabilities in our society are facing more and more.
Francesca Martinez brings to the compact Dorfman stage the realities that are faced every day by disabled people, highlighting their constant battle for their rights and basic needs to be met in order for them to live their lives. In an era of austerity this is becoming increasingly harder and, along with many others in society are having to make gut-wrenching choices and undignified sacrifices.
Martinez herself has Cerebral Palsy and it is unclear how much of her play might be autobiographical. Certainly the experiences of living with a disability – or being ‘wobbly' as her character Jess calls it – are given great nuance and remarkably intimate detail in both her writing as well as in her performance.
Jess is a therapist and has to endure the humiliation of her Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment. She isn't worried – "I'm wobbly, they have eyes, that should be enough" – it isn't and her support mechanisms are suddenly reduced. Her Motability car is taken from her which means she can no longer go to work – it's a sad and all too rapid spiral for her. She is brought together with Poppy – a young lady with a foul mouth and a high libido – by their shared carer. Poppy uses a wheelchair and has had her nighttime care cut, resulting in the 21 year-old being put to bed at 9pm every night and left there until the next morning in a nappy as she cannot take herself to the toilet.
This is all hard-hitting enough in itself, and although the narrative drive of these moments – along with intersections of therapy clients speaking to Jess – is far too clunky and episodic, it provides strong material with which to grapple with the subject matter. Martinez goes a step beyond however and starts to shift the direction firmly into the political, where it all becomes a bit two-dimensional. Easy pot shots and cheap gags are made at a stereotypically evil Tory whose "only goal is to build a society without compassion". The second act opens as a town hall meeting in which the audience is scattered with cast members and the arguments are laid bare for all to see. At this juncture, it all gets sadly predictable and becomes a pantomime shouting match akin to a Thursday night on Question Time with the arguments hammered upon us a little too obviously.
Martinez is a warm presence on stage and is unafraid to bravely show her vulnerabilities. A simple task such as opening a cereal box to make herself breakfast is devastatingly difficult to watch but brings home the challenges that Jess faces every day. She hates to talk about what she can't do and is desperate to understand the world, a world she believes to be built on hope but also one that demonises difference.
Francesca Mills is far more outspoken as Poppy. She is angry and boisterous and proudly "reserves her right to be a bitch". She hates the Paralympics and was grateful to Tinder for getting her through lockdown. Mills is a riot and she blazes around the stage at fearsome speed but is breathtakingly poignant as her anger gives way to frustration and desperation.
Lucy Briers and Bryan Dick both give solid performances as Rita and Aidan, therapy clients of Jess's to bring the subject of mental health into the mix as well. Crystal Condie works hard as best friend Lottie. Ian Rickson's direction keep the pace quite slow and there is an awful lot of furniture being repeatedly pushed on and off stage, which becomes distracting. The shows seems to come to a natural end at least twice before it finally finishes and at three hours long it could really do with a trim.
Jess cries out at one point "There's no room for us": it's a sucker punch moment. Nobody in our, so-called civilised society, should be made to feel like that.