I’m not sure the theatregoing public really needs a play almost three hours long to tell them that there are some major deficiencies in adult social care provision. All of Us, which might as well have been called The Government is Very Bad, goes into considerable detail about Jess (Francesca Martinez) and her personal circumstances. A Department of Work and Pensions assessor visits her and takes her through an absurd number of questions – Jess answers them all, though she later has a tinge of regret at being so honest as it may have been a contributory factor to her no longer being eligible for the ‘higher rate’ part of PIP (Personal Independence Payment), which means, in turn, she is no longer eligible for the Motability Scheme, so her car is taken away.
It’s not a watertight play – a long scene at a ‘meeting’, a larger gathering than a regular constituency surgery, held by Oliver Hargreaves MP (Michael Gould) could easily have been truncated by Jess or any of the other participants cutting away from the scene and giving a summary direct to the audience. Instead, too much time is given over to political platitudes, which although true to the convoluted manner in which parliamentarians have a habit of (not) answering a relatively straightforward question, really doesn’t make for good theatre, especially when – to the surprise of utterly nobody – nothing at all happens as a result of various contributions, stories and questions from constituents.
Jess is a therapist, and has cerebral palsy – one of her patients, Aidan (Bryan Dick) is only there because it’s part of a wider rehabilitation programme. His acerbic wit is matched by Jess – intellectually speaking, they effectively become sparring partners, which stands in marked contrast to the likes of Dr Anderson (Lucy Briers), who sees Jess in A&E following an accident, and draws gasps from the unassuming National Theatre press night audience at her unmalicious but nonetheless condescending tone.
There are plenty of laughs in the show, some of which come from Poppy (Francesca Mills), a chirpy 21-year-old who would be in work, as the DWP has apparently determined she should be, but cannot be on account of being disabled. Her initial bolshy attitude is refreshing, but her story eventually becomes, like so many of the other characters, a tale of misery and woe, such that in the end, even the stoic and private Jess joins in a chorus of voices all saying the same thing – the Government has reduced or denied altogether the disabled entitlements they once had, with devastating consequences.
Be patient, so the Government (in the form of Hargreaves) tells them. Jess and her fellow disabled people have a point when they say the loss of income and support is not something they can wait an indeterminate period of time for to be resolved. And, after all, to use an example not deployed in the show, if the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, inept as they were, could be set up in days, why can’t a revised package be finalised quickly to ensure disabled people receive the level of care and support they require?
The set works well, with a lot of pushing and pulling by members of the company between scenes – and in the centre of the stage, a revolve gets regular use. It’s not quite minimalist theatre but there isn’t anything on stage that doesn’t serve a purpose, and the uncluttered stage allows the focus to be on the dialogue. Oddly, the police intervene in an incident that they would be unlikely in reality to get involved with, and in an inappropriate manner (the production seems determined to portray the police as being as bad as the Government, perhaps worse). There’s a hint at the very end that the local MP just might not be so heartless in future as he has been to date, which I initially found totally absurd, and still do on further reflection.
It’s an ambitious, and slightly over-long, debut play from Martinez, which perhaps wisely doesn’t come up with a manifesto of its own to address the problems it raises. A brief conversation about sex workers and the benefits they provide to disabled people could have warranted more discussion – and did none of the characters think to go to the press with their stories, especially after being fobbed off by their MP? There’s nothing, in the end, wrong with a production speaking truth to power, and it is difficult not to feel grateful to live in a society that allows for dissenting voices.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Jess has a great life: a job she loves, a sharp sense of humour and a close group of friends.
When austerity threatens the world she has worked hard to build, Jess makes a stand to protect those she holds most dear.
Inspired by real life experiences of disabled people in the UK, All of Us captures the humour, sadness and joy of everyday life, and is a passionate and timely look at the human cost of abandoning those who struggle to fit in.
All of Us
a new play by Francesca Martinez
From 27 July to 24 September 2022