Writer: Francesca Martinez
Director: Ian Rickson
The National Theatre has a remit to confront the here and now with a strand of socio-political plays that address contemporary crises and provides state-of-the-nation commentary. While the charmingly frothy summer shows take over the Olivier and Lyttleton spaces, Francesca Martinez’s latest play All of Us in the Dorfman is a ferocious statement about living with a disability and the deliberate erosion of independence that dehumanising government social care and economic policies have created.
Therapist Jess is perfectly happy with her lifestyle until a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment deems her more mobile than she is and withdraws her transport. Requiring carer support to bathe, dress and prepare food each day, Jess loses access to her workplace and her freedom. Discovering similar experiences in her community and incensed at having to prove a lifelong condition, a public meeting with the local MP presents the perfect opportunity for everyone to explain to him the consequences of his party policies.
All of Us is staged as a series of episodic conversations running in a roughly chronological order, merging Jess’ real life with the therapy sessions she conducts, helping other people to work through their problems but refusing to admit to her own. It makes for an interesting central character, one whose unwillingness to ask for help frustrates her friends and becomes one of the play’s recurring themes.
These encounters with carer Nadia, best friend Lottie and later with the fabulous Poppy establish both routines and lifestyle compromises for the audience as the reassessment outcomes, along with the consequences of the pandemic and the topical economic crisis, slowly reduce the opportunities for everyone and the affordability of daily life when key support mechanisms are removed. And Martinez is candid about the reality of having a disability, including scenes where Jess is given help to dress, while Poppy is helped to bed and into a nappy by her friends because her night care visits are reduced.
All of this builds to a terrific emotive scene at the start of Act Two when the characters we know confront MP Hargreaves along with plenty more who represent the experiences Martinez has uncovered during her research. Ian Rickson stages this with lights up and actors placed throughout the in-the-round audience creating a gladiatorial arena in which the politician demurs and deflects, and while it is filled with exposition and facts, it creates a simmering tension as two sides collide in angry debate. Martinez tries the same approach later with her conclusion which, despite a shocking police intervention, is less dramatically successful, re-treading ground from earlier in the evening.
But there is an imbalance in All of Us and while the story of the protagonist and her friends hit home, a sappy subplot with patient Aidan takes up far too much room in the story and brings relatively little to the production overall. Partly it is a plot contrivance, a way to tie different strands together that never make Bryan Dick’s Aidan feel like a real character while an overly tidy eleventh-hour romance is both ethically dubious and not something that therapist Jess has even hinted at wanting. In a three-hour play, this just takes up space offering a slightly sentimental outcome to what has otherwise been a sharply political piece.
Martinez develops Jess over the course of All of Us, absorbing the troubles of others but refusing to be goaded into complaining for herself. Francesca Mills is tremendous as fun-loving Poppy who embraces life and as many Tinder dates as possible but has complexity and depth, while friend Lottie (Crystal Condie) is often outraged on their behalf. In a tough role, Michael Gould captures the casual dismissiveness of politicians assured they are making things better and refusing to see that they are worse. And this is the message of All of Us, that in trying to reform a broken system and making people less dependent, the removal of support has made them more so. And, as Martinez concludes, ‘do you know how hard it is to ask for help?’
Runs until 24 September 2022