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Review: ALL OF US, National Theatre

Francesca Martinez's searing indictment of the treatment of people with disabilities

Review: ALL OF US, National Theatre Review: ALL OF US, National Theatre Sometimes theatre can tick over, the shadows to whom Puck refers in the closing speech of A Midsummer Night's Dream failing to offend us because they fail to affect us.

Sure, they divert us, amuse us, surprise us, but the shadows are gone when the sun goes down, yesterday consigned to the past, the new day dawns ready for new ideas, new plays, new actors. But sometimes theatre bares its teeth, reminding you of its power to reach deep into your heart and soul, the shadows not blinked away so easily - such is the case with All Of Us.

Jess is a therapist administering talking cures for those who "checked the cooker was off 32 times before I left the house today" (I'm down to twice - usually). Lockdown exacerbated problems like her patient, Rita's, whose OCD and anxiety worsening significantly under its strictures. Later, we're reminded that Covid was (and is) a much more brutal enemy for people with disabilities than for those without, those left not so much comforted as discomfited (and more) by politicians' complacent talk of the disease's worst impacts being confined to those with 'pre-existing conditions'.

Jess wobbles. Her cerebral palsy makes it impossible to do up buttons - and, if you can't do up buttons, there's plenty more you can't do either. But there's plenty you can do - you just need a hand with the dressing, with the cooking, with the transport etc and the wobbling fades into the background. It's a consequence not of the wobbling, but of the buttons - because the world is set up for those who do not wobble, it has to be made afresh, sometimes minute by minute, by those who do wobble - but, with a bit of help, it's not impossible.

Poppy is 21 years old, loud and lairy like lots of 21 year-olds, smokes a bit, drinks a bit and has Tinder sex a bit, living life with the fast-forward buttons pressed down - we all did then didn't we? She is in a chair because the world is not set up for girls as short as her - like Jess, she also needs that bit of help - but it's not impossible.

Aidan finds solace in the bottle, his childhood traumas crowding out his adult life, his intelligence and generosity hidden behind a carapace of cynical wit that he uses to retain the comfort of his miserable disengagement. He resents the time he is obliged to spend with the wobbly therapist, but he's too smart not to see that there's another life beyond the bottle, that, with a bit of help, it's not impossible.

Francesca Martinez, who wrote the play and wobbles on stage as the fiercely independent Jess, creates people we know (there's a Polish cleaner, an insensitive doctor, an ideologically driven MP and plenty more) and they're warm, funny and vulnerable - just like anyone else. Some are disabled.

Francesca Mills is fantastic as the flirtatious, potty-mouthed short girl so full of life she could be called Popping not Poppy, the energy bursting out of her. Bryan Dick lends recovering alcoholic Aidan a damaged charm, a bitterness that will never leave, but can be managed with some oranges and some love.

Michael Gould chills as the MP, slick in delivery, reasonable in explaining how his government is reforming welfare services in a common sense way, but reluctant to face the consequences when they present as people not statistics, people who need a bit of help.

And then those bits of help are withdrawn.

Gone is the dignity anyone should be afforded as a baseline of life - your heart breaks for Poppy. Gone is the opportunity for Jess to define oneself as a therapist who wobbles and she's left with just the wobbles because she can't get to the surgery any more.

The world becomes a set of insurmountable obstacles that austerity has raised, our charming, ordinary, decent people whom we have come to care for, excluded as effectively as if they were locked in a cage. This is what is going on behind the closed doors we walk past on the way to the shops, this is the reality behind the rhetoric, this is what we have chosen to do, with eyes wide open, repeatedly at the ballot box, the empathy gap not so much hidden by politicians these days as celebrated. The problem is, as the play's title suggests, one for all of us.

Martinez is a comedian and can write and deliver a laugh line beautifully - one was as unexpected and funny as I can remember hearing in a theatre. She can also create characters with whom we want to spend time - a long play zips by. Director, Ian Rickson, keeps the pace high too, short scenes giving us insights into lives that seem, initially anyway, distant from our own, but the lived experiences portrayed on stage soon coalesce and find a place in our own lives. Differences, as ever, collapse when the commonality of humanity is explored.

And I felt, if not quite ashamed, then certainly shaken. I had, in my own ableist world, become compassion-fatigued by radio phone-ins in which people talked of their mental health problems, of worthy pieces in The Guardian detailing changes to Personal Independence Payment assessments , of advocates explaining the impact of austerity and its cuts to social services. It felt overwhelming, only pieces like Rory Kinnear's account of his sister Karina's death from Covid in May 2020 cutting through the background noise. "Well I didn't vote for the bastards" was my Get Out Of Jail Free card.

But All Of Us harnesses theatre's unique power to affect the emotions viscerally, to shake the complacency out of us, to upset us and anger us. Martinez's play does that and powerfully so. If the second half turns a little heavy-handed with overt politics, it's worth remembering that what we learned in the first half - that we have made collective choices that mean that some people's dignity requires that bit of help and then we took it away.

Tell me again that we can't afford it and I think I'll scream.

All Of Us is at The National Theatre until 24 September

Photo Credit: Helen Murray




From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld (https://www.broadwayworld.com/author/Gary-Naylor) and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)


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