National Theatre, Dorfman – until 24 September 2022
It would be unsurprising, indeed completely understandable, for a new state-of-the-nation play focusing on the treatment of, and opportunities for, disabled people in present-day UK, to fetch up on stage as a furious, ranty polemic. Francesca Martinez’s dramatic writing debut, All Of Us at the National, goes down a rather more unexpected and interesting route however.
It filters the passionate arguments, often grim experiences and execrable benefit cuts through the prism of one of the most likeable and engaging female central protagonists in any piece of new writing within living memory. That’s not to say that this confident new piece lacks fire in its belly; far from it, it’s coruscatingly clear-eyed in its takedown of a system that repeatedly and callously fails the people it should be helping, but it also has real tenderness and sweetness in amongst the politics.
Martinez’s Jess is a successful therapist with her own practise, a ferociously positive outlook on life and an indomitable kindness tempered with a wicked sense of humour; in short, she is the kind of woman who makes other people’s lives better just by being there. She also has cerebral palsy, which means that she is on PIP, and is partially dependent on regular home visits from a carer (Wanda Opalinska, excellent) and, for the purposes of getting to and from her practise rooms, a car provided by the welfare state. The way that this intelligent, accomplished young woman’s life starts to unravel once she is deemed ineligible for vital portions of her financial support following a particularly callous reassessment of her needs, is what drives much of the play… but it is Jess’ unhistrionic reaction to her plight that vitiates and distinguishes it.
Ian Rickson’s sparky production, making intelligent use of an unobtrusive revolve and the entire Dorfman auditorium, has many strengths but the chief one is having Martinez perform her own work. Her entrancing Jess projects an innate goodness that never cloys, as well as an intense watchfulness and sardonic wit; she is the sort of person that is so used to putting other people’s emotional needs before her own that it takes her some time to accept that the fact that she now needs the support she habitually offers to others. It’s a warm, generous performance, full of exquisite detail and an irrepressible joie de vivre that makes it all the more powerful in the moments when her facade cracks: when somebody this good gets truly angry, it behoves us all to shut up and listen.
I defy anybody not to be deeply moved when Jess bares her soul to Bryan Dick’s superb patient-turned-ally Aidan, describing how hard won her optimism and kindness actually is, that to live this sunnily is an actual choice. That moment hammers home with excruciating force the realisation just how much the Jess’s of this world have had to conquer and still face daily in order to achieve what other people take for granted or, worse, squander on a regular basis. It’s extremely powerful and illuminating, and Martinez and Dick give it full emotional rein.
It’s an ambitious piece, which at times threatens to sink under the sheer weight of it’s multiple themes, but is carried through by humour, some laser sharp observations and a vivid gallery of characters. Martinez creates a credible, beautifully realised friendship between Jess and her somewhat flaky pregnant best friend (Crystal Condie’s lovable Lottie) and the outspoken, sexually voracious Poppy (Francesca Mills in a firecracker of a performance), determined, at least initially, that being confined to a wheelchair will not cramp her wild style.
Christopher John-Slater and Kevin Hely make potent, bitterly funny impressions as two furious victims of cuts to disability benefits due to austerity, resolutely refusing to suffer in silence, and Oliver Alvin-Wilson does terrific, contrasting work as one of Poppy’s squeezes and then the desperately disenfranchised parent of a severely disabled child.
If an oil-smooth-until-rattled Conservative politician, played with appropriate oleaginous relish by Michael Gould, is given a rather-too-convenient backstory of untapped artistic ability and a troubled childhood, I suspect that may be more down to an inspiring generosity of spirit on Martinez’s part than any particularly redemptive features in any Tories. Her script smartly makes the point though that people on the fringes of despair and disillusionment don’t necessarily vote in the way that one might expect.
Dramaturgically, All Of Us is pretty raw, but I’m not sure a more conventionally and neatly structured play would speak to us with quite the same compelling urgency. There is inevitably a slight feeling of shooting fish in a barrel as Martinez deconstructs and shines a light on the flaws in the welfare state system, but it is impossible to watch without an increasing sense of justifiable fury. It’s writing from the heart, and what a beautiful, all-encompassing heart it is. Essential viewing.