FringeReview UK 2022
Francesca Martinez All Of Us at the National Theatre’s Dorfman is directed by Ian Rickson. Set and Costume Design by Georgia Lowe, Lighting Design Anna Watson. Composer Stephen Warbeck, Sound Design Gregory Clarke, Movement Director Lucy Cullingford, Fight Director Terry King, Company Voice Work Jeannette Nelson, and Dialect Shereen Ibrahim, Staff Director Hana Pascal Keegan.
Till September 24th
Francesca Martinez’s All Of Us is scheduled at the NT Dorfman just three, four, just occasionally five times a week. Almost a rebuke to high summer playing out on summer stages, this debut blazes with a love and ferocity that make you ask just what theatre is, what on earth it can do. It possesses everyone powering through its three hours. How can the actors not be burned by what they inhabit? That’s often rhetorical. Not here. You cannot see this without wanting to shout it out to the streets.
Before it comes off on September 24th, it’s must-see for anyone who lives with, cares about, or doesn’t care about disability, disablism and justice. Yet Martinez is screamingly funny (screams aren’t always ours). Generously, she gifts killer-lines to others.
Francesca Martinez herself plays central character Jess, living with being ‘wobbly’ having cerebral palsy from birth. We first encounter her as psychotherapist where any expectations are neatly inverted. Lucy Briers nailing her first role as OCD-afflicted Rita takes hours to leave her house.
Ian Rickson directs with a keen pulse, allowing silence its share, often at a lick; set-speeches land with precision, every howl blossoms. Georgia Lowe’s stripped cerise-red stage features a discreet revolve telling each one-on-one encounter in the round. It only requires a sofa and chairs, a table, with Anna Watson’s lighting zeroing or flooding as we move to debate; and incandescent as a memory blasts in. Stephen Warbeck’s music is quietly boppy and undistracting, Gregory Clarke’s sound a wild riff on occasion. Lucy Cullingford’s movement is sensitive, witty, and with such a huge ensemble for this stage, consummate.
Despite a lifelong condition Jess’s PIP (Personal Independence Payment) is reassessed in person by Goldy Notay’s distracted Yvonne, questions cut off by her workphone boss demanding she’s elsewhere, before Jess tells her everything. Naturally Jess is downgraded, she – like Rita – loses money, her car’s taken back, she can’t even work: that requires room-hire. Martinez elegantly short-cuts the questionnaire scene; just in case anyone thinks it exaggerated, I can say it really, really isn’t.
The title echoes the rallying-cry against disablism: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’. Underscoring this isn’t, never can be, a solitary journey, it exposes that paradox that so many die solitary, stripped sometimes of the means to breathe, let alone eat, let alone live. One in four of all of us will experience disability, often mental; it comes without warning.
After All Of Us you might come away convinced eugenics by stealth is secret government policy. Yet pushbacks against disability rights started under New Labour.
Martinez builds Jess from experience of being – she prefers the term – ‘wobbly’ but also from a loving background. This first play despite Martinez’s fame as stand-up and actor, cleaves to an extent to what she knows. That goes for storylines, searing with truth, only a brace of caveats notwithstanding.
It’s not a solitary journey. Martinez deploys actors she’s worked with; their characters’ stories spin like a centrifuge around Jess, pressing in with a centripetal energy that threatens to overwhelm her.
Jess herself is flawed: uber-coping with others’ problems, refusing to ask for help from parents, friends, professionals. She yearns to be perfect somewhere. It’s a convincing arrogance, allows plot-points and trademark hilarity. When asked how she got glass embedded in her foot, Jess’s nonchalant ‘Iain Duncan Smith came by. I killed him’ means it’s a while before the audience recover.
Her wound fastened with her friend Lottie’s sanitary pad she quips ‘Thai-Pad’. Briers’ patronising ‘can she’ third-person A&E Dr Anderson affords more digs. ‘I prefer ‘wobbly’. Have you tried putting ‘cerebral palsy’ on Tinder?’ And finally from Briers: ‘Oh, do you drive?’ A galimaufrey of monsters get slain in a short scene.
If there’s an inner Francesca Martinez screaming to be let out of Jess, she’s realised in another Francesca. Crucially, Francesca Mills’ Poppy is wheelchair-bound; her benefit’s cut, meaning she has no carer after 9pm, has to sleep nappied in her faeces till 8am. Since Poppy’s a wise-cracking hedonist of 21 this seems like state murder by degrees. Mills is incandescent.
Scabrous, self-mocking, she takes on Martinez’s stand-up self with northern roots and southern discomfort. ‘I am a woozy floozy… You say seeing. I say shagging… Don’t knock a hairy carpet. Some men love ’em.’
Poppy though skirls fury at metropolitan virtue-signalling, directed at Jess. ‘Ooh, she’s wobbly and a therapist. Wow, she’s so inspirational…. I’ve no arms or legs and I’ve just climbed Everest in a pair of flip-flops.’ There’s blossoming seduction-scenes with Mills and Oliver Avin-Wilson’s vibrant Dom; and a great confrontation at the top of Act 2 where Poppy blasts a Tory minister with above details.
Martinez though crafts a confrontation to swerve Poppy’s northern anger to a political twist I don’t quite buy (in my experience of 20 years disability arts). It makes no difference to the devastating arc of Poppy’s story though.
There’s wit and spark from Crystal Condie’s long-suffering Lottie, rasp-tongued by Poppy for not coming out. And Polish carer Wanda Opalinska’s super-sashaying Nadia. With another patient (Jess hates ‘clients’) Byan Dick’s referred alcoholic Aidan, Jess negotiates a hyper-prickly, articulate young man scarred with privilege, with consequences for both. Dick strikes more registers than most during recovery, skirting limits of therapy and empathy. It’s here we encounter Martinez’ intimate affirmation: ‘I’m not broken, I’m a unique spark of life. We all are.’
Two set-piece meetings bookending Act 2 are an ensemble blaze. Actors round the auditorium emerge cheek-by-jowl from the audience.
Michael Gould’s Hargreaves, all suavely-tailored government blandness, is ambushed, notwithstanding the fig-leaves of staff (Notay’s devoted, disappointed Anita) and Daniel Fearn’s local party plant Raymond.
Martinez refuses to demonise: allows Raymond self-explanation, whilst markers about Hargreaves humanise his backstory. It allows the end to rise to not rage, but humanity.
It’s a carefully-gradated exposition of what’s at stake. There’s notable contributions from Mills (‘I don’t care what the intention was… can you go to the toilet by yourself?’), and Christopher John-Slater’s wobbly and wheelchair-bound Kyle, whom Hargreaves cannot be bothered to understand. This allows Kevin Hely’s disabled, soon homeless former soldier Henry to repeat Kyle’s questions whilst throwing eloquent incendiaries in the forms of ‘forensic’ stats. Particularly over what’s meant by freedom, over who’s finds living with ‘difficult decisions’ difficult.
Avin-Wilson’s Bob rails about caring for highly-dependant children, alongside Opalinska’s Marcella: they lock with Fearns and stooge Chris Anderson’s hapless Ryan. With Briers’ Rita returning, Martinez covers every disablist angle possible, yet the scene’s not overlong. It’s a huge cast for the Dorfman. Matt Betteridge, Peter Eastland, Rebecca Todd swell the scene. Briers returns as overworked, almost oblivious carer Angela, a lightning-sketch of carers no longer caring.
The final scene explodes: Anderson’s sinister Officer Chalfont, backed by Fearns, in burly bad-cop mode. Again limits of established media are spiked, as Bonnie Baddoo’s filmmaker manages a mute protest when ordered to stop. The scene’s brutally convincing, but doesn’t end as you’d think.
Three hours bursts with polemic but also telling scenes of intimacy and conflict. There’s a plot-point that mightn’t ring true; it grows on me.
As Ken Tynan once said of another debut, I don’t think I could love anyone who doesn’t love this play. The personal, as Jess’s story shows, has to be dragged like her, shouting into the political. ‘Can’t you see what this system is doing… To all of us?’ Outstanding.