It’s quite ironic that the National Theatre had to issue a clarification when it shared a video of All Of Us playwright Francesca Martinez calling out austerity on live TV. Ironic, because the disabled comedian’s debut play’s most striking point is around how shutting up in times of injustice isn’t exactly helpful.
The actress, who has cerebral palsy but prefers the term ‘wobbly’, stars as Jess, a therapist who following a benefits assessment finds out the support she receives is being reduced. The agonising domino effect that causes on her work, her social life and more is laid bare over the almost three-hour running time.
The play is long, and the majority of it is talk with little action, as an assortment of background characters offload their problems onto Jess – whether it’s in a therapy setting or otherwise. In the first few minutes alone we’re introduced to Rita (Lucy Briers), one of Jess’ patients who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and agoraphobia, yet this is conveyed through disappointing stereotypes. There’s the need to check the oven was turned off multiple times, and the compulsion to use anti-bacterial gel every few minutes. It’s the usual representation of the physical manifestations of OCD, with little insight into the intrusive thoughts which generate them, and for a prominent disabled person (playing a therapist, too, it must be said), I can’t help but feel like Martinez should have known better.
Another problematic line sees Henry (Kevin Hely) a former Irish veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) explain he first thought his condition was “middle class b*****ks like chronic fatigue”. Although I’m fairly sure Martinez doesn’t possess that view of chronic illnesses herself, there’s better ways to show flaws in characters than in lateral ableism, and it’s a shame an audience – made up of some impressionable non-disabled people, no doubt – laughed at the line when it was uttered.
Away from this and the more on-the-nose dialogue, better lines come from what the comedian does best: jokes about disabled people based on their own lived experiences. One joke about Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary infamous for his decisions on benefits, is shockingly funny. Meanwhile Jess’ friend Poppy (Francesca Mills) – a wheelchair user with dyed hair; a Tinder addiction; and achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism – is outlandish and outrageous in how direct she is. Her sex positivity, including her making out with a non-disabled partner, is so refreshing in demonstrating disabled people can and do have sexuality.
Though it seems it’s writing non-disabled characters where Martinez struggles. Flatmate Lottie (Crystal Condie) and her dialogue, which points out the obvious and constantly highlights how unjust everything is, comes across as more infantilising than meaningful allyship. Then there’s the recovering alcoholic and patient Aidan (Bryan Dick), who carries out the enemies to lovers trope before becoming the motivational non-disabled person to explain disability to Jess when she feels like a burden. Tired narratives and ideas against slow pacing and a soft score (from Stephen Warbeck) mean we’re soon crying out for something a lot more dynamic. Even Poppy is eventually calling on Jess to be a bit more angry about just how terrible everything is becoming for her and other disabled people.
Though to be fair to director Ian Rickson (Rosmersholm and Uncle Vanya), the second act gets off to a more dramatic start. It’s long overdue, and makes use of the ‘in the round’ set design from Georgia Lowe (Equus) to create a fourth wall-breaking public event with controversial Tory MP, Oliver Hargreaves (played in a way which is so perfectly – but painfully – vapid by ANNA’s Michael Gould). A spinning stage complete with characters simply walking on and off-stage during scene changes only further illustrates the ideas of life going on, and the messages of the play appealing to all of us – hence the title.
Many disabled people will understand the anguish of a punitive benefits system and the Department of Work and Pensions which enforces it, but there’s something in All Of Us which makes the challenges of ableism easier for the non-disabled majority to appreciate. Namely, that toxic masculinity and the patriarchy – which even Hargreaves is victim to – enforces a narrative of ‘manning up’ and never asking for help. When that bleeds into politics, those who need help the most – such as disabled people – are hurt significantly. Needless to say there’s a reason why Aidan is so acidic towards therapist Jess in the first instance.
For a debut play, All Of Us holds a powerful idea close to its heart, but ultimately rhythm and troublesome tropes undermine an otherwise vital and necessary production.
All Of Us is now playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 24 September.
A captioned performance is due to take place on 8 August, while an audio described show is scheduled for 10 August.
Two relaxed performances take place during the run, on 19 August and 13 September.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘All Of Us’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for the above article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.