Theatre

The National Theatre’s All of Us is a powerful indictment of austerity but also shows the possibilities of inclusion. By Fiona Murphy.

The National Theatre’s All of Us

Two women in discussion as they face each other while sitting on a bed. A wheelchair is in the background.
Francesca Martinez (left) as Jess and Francesca Mills as Poppy in All of Us.
Credit: Helen Murray

With the marketing hook “unmissable theatre, whenever you want it”, the National Theatre at Home streaming service offers more than 60 plays. As filmed records of live performance, they include small but thoughtful gestures to re-create the theatre experience for the viewer as they lie on their couch with a bowl of chips.

The opening soundscape of the production All of Us  is of the audience fidgeting, gossiping, laughing. The camera’s viewfinder is angled low, as if you are sitting among them, idly people-watching while waiting for the show to begin.

Then two women walk up a gently sloping ramp and onto the carpeted stage. Their arms are hooked together. Each step taken is slow and deliberately planted. Silence descends in the theatre, quickly taking on a studious intensity. Jess (Francesca Martinez) is assisted into a chair before being left to sit alone. Within a few moments it is revealed that she is a therapist waiting for her next patient to arrive.

Jess’s entrance – unrushed, undramatic and entirely mundane – is a masterstroke. The audience is given time and space to absorb their first impression, one that might completely unravel by the end of the 160-minute production. “I thought you were drunk when I first saw you,” admits one of her patients, after learning Jess has cerebral palsy. “You’re not the first,” the therapist replies.

All of Us is comedian and actor Martinez’s debut play. It was due to be staged at London’s National Theatre in 2020 but its premiere was postponed by the pandemic. When it finally opened in August 2022, according to Martinez’s website, it received standing ovations after every performance. It is not hard to imagine Australian audiences having similar reactions. As in Britain, Australia’s disability support systems are being scrutinised. And, as a politician in the play says, “When the government overhauls their welfare system, which we are in the midst of doing, there are always challenges and mistakes are invariably made.”

Jess loves her job and lives with her best friend, Lottie (Crystal Condie). Despite a looming personal independence payment (PIP) assessment – which will determine the level of disability supports she will be entitled to – Jess remains unconcerned and unceasingly cheerful. Even when her patients ask her questions such as “Do you wish you were normal?”, her response is reliably quick and jovial: “What’s normal?”

The PIP assessment comes as a surprise to Jess. She explains to the assessor, Yvonne (Goldy Notay), that she had been awarded a “lifetime benefit” when she was six years old. From behind her government-issued laptop, Yvonne tells her: “We don’t do that anymore.”

The assessment takes place in Jess’s flat. The questions are probing, offering Jess no space for her usual philosophical or witty responses when asked about her disability. Instead, she is forced to highlight her deficits and detail how she deviates from “normal”. It emerges that Yvonne has no knowledge of cerebral palsy. “It’s my first week doing this,” she explains.

When Yvonne discovers she has double-booked herself, a mutual feeling of panic enters the flat. Yvonne races through the remaining questions, distracted and ticking check boxes. Jess answers “Yes” when asked if she can walk 20 metres with or without assistance. By now the audience is aware that when unassisted Jess ambulates on her knees.

Once the check box is ticked, the assessment is promptly submitted. Yvonne packs up her laptop as Jess tries to provide more detail. It’s too late. The collateral damage from this moment barrels through the play with breathtaking speed.

Jess’s ever-shrinking independence stops her being able to care for others as a therapist, friend and flatmate. It is a vivid and spectacular argument for interdependence, shattering the stubborn perception that disabled people only receive care and support. “I knew I wanted to write a play that explored how austerity was impacting different people,” says Martinez in an interview recorded for the National Theatre. “I also wanted to explore more universal themes like ‘What defines us?’ ”

Martinez’s curiosity about other people infuses the play, with the entire cast of characters – disabled and non-disabled – pushed to their limits. Humour stops the production from teetering towards sentimentality. Martinez scatters one-liners throughout and the audience laughs, almost with gasping relief.

Thanks to the conceit of Jess being a therapist and empathetic friend, these stories are woven into the narrative, with each character given long two-hander scenes. This format provides urgent insights into contemporary disability life – from dating and sex to working and navigating the cost of living – but it eventually slows the pace of the first act.

The second act opens with the house lights up. The actors are planted throughout the audience, heightening the scale and drama of an unfolding council meeting in which participants use every tool at their disposal to convince the politician of their plight, reeling off grim statistics and political arguments.

Jess’s friends have encouraged her to attend and speak up about the impact the PIP assessment has had on her life, but she is reluctant: “I’m not going to moan about my life in public.” Others take a different approach. Their voices volley around the room with uncontained rage. “This system isn’t ‘failing’ or ‘under pressure’. It’s working exactly how it’s designed to work!” yells one character when confronting the politician.

The politician attempts to settle the crowd with justifications about “teething problems” and explanations about the impact Covid-19 has had on the government’s budget. “Stop using Covid as an excuse!” roars another character. “It was exactly the same before Covid, before Brexit.” Even from my couch, it is obvious the theatre is electric with fury. This energy is occasionally leached from the space when the dialogue verges on the didactic.

Francesca Mills is a tour de force. She plays Poppy, a 21-year-old power wheelchair user whose supports have also been cut. She speaks with plain force: “Why can’t I go to bed when I want to? And why are you lot making me sleep in my own piss and shit?”

Each transition between scenes is tightly choreographed with clothes donned or doffed, furniture moved or rearranged and characters entering or exiting the stage. The actors and stagehands move with silent unity, setting up scenes while seamlessly fulfilling the accessibility needs of each disabled cast member. As a disabled woman, watching these transitions – the work of the play’s movement director, Lucy Cullingford – begins to feel like a dream sequence of inclusion. Effortless and elegant.

“As a movement director it is part of your toolbox to analyse space and time for the play, for the actors, for the world,” says Cullingford in a podcast interview. I wish we could all live in the space Cullingford creates in her stagecraft. All of Us is stark, hilarious and devastating. It showcases the immense and intricate web of interdependence. People need people.

All of Us is available to stream on National Theatre at Home.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Glimpses of utopia".

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