All of Us is an attack on welfare state reform. It lashes out at those who make decisions from the perspective of the many, with no consideration for the impact they will have on the individual. It is a political diatribe. But a very polite one.
It is unquestionably a tale that must be told.
Francesca Martinez’ debut play is unsettling, dramatic, and thought-provoking. If you sliced it through the middle, the word worthy would be clearly visible. It also has just the right amount of left-wing bias. In all, it is an ideal choice for the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage.
It is unquestionably a tale that must be told. But it could be told much more effectively.
Martinez in a therapist’s cardigan
As well as writing the script, Martinez plays the central role of Jess, a woman who has worked hard to become a successful therapist. Jess has cerebral palsy. She is ‘a bit wobbly’ as she prefers to say; a term for which Martinez herself is well-known. Not for this reason alone does it appear Jess is less a character and more Martinez in a therapist’s cardigan.
Positioning herself as the anti-bureaucrat, Jess refers to her clients or patients as people. But she is continually treated as ‘other’. In “a world that can’t handle different,” presumptive prejudice is something she meets daily.
Jess is having her PIP (Personal Independence Payment) reassessment. Reassessment for a lifetime condition seems absurd, but this is part of recent welfare reforms. The assessor is new. She is rushed. And the questionnaire seems designed to trap people. The outcome of the assessment sees Jess lose her car. And with it her independence and her job.
The ‘all’ of all of us
This is only one sliver of the many stories crammed into the three hours of a play that seems intent on proving the ‘all’ of All of Us.
Other wrongs are done against characters that include three wheelchair users, each with a disability that is distinctly different, a middle-class alcoholic, a lesbian single mother who is not out to her father, a Polish carer and a PTSD sufferer. Forgive me for the others I have surely missed. Each shows a different example of a life adversely and perversely affected by cutbacks.
A point repeatedly made is that individuals are not to blame, government is. Carers are pressured to meet deadlines by reducing the time spent making visits. Friends are helpless to offer support if they aren’t asked for help. Everyone is doing their best against a cruel system. It is only the politician for whom blame is made personal.
The melodrama of a soap
You’ll know Francesca Martinez. In the late 90s, she played Rachel Burns in Grange Hill; one of the first characters on mainstream television to have cerebral palsy. Since then, she has become a popular stand-up comedian, published a best-selling novel, and often appears on the comedy panel show circuit.
Primarily you will know her for being one of the few, if not the only, recognisable faces of disability in the media. Using her platform to advocate for disability rights, she secured an historic parliamentary debate in 2014 on the impact of welfare reform on the sick and disabled. She was a very vocal and prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.
This background has clearly shaped All of Us, both in the tale and the telling.
It is politically-charged – and specifically anti-Tory – but uses melodrama like a soap or piece of YA fiction. Plot points seem motivated by their potential for impact, rather than being realistic character developments. They come prefaced, with big, bold lettered signposts. You can almost hear the duff-duffs.
Characters also do sudden volte-faces. A friend, who had shown no earlier signs of despair, commits suicide. It follows a scene that ended with them wondering aloud whether there was anything to hope for. And it’s a very clean suicide for one so non-suicidal. A single successful attempt after having told their carer to say (a last) hello to the group.
Another character who was once Jess’s angry, alcoholic patient suddenly becomes her lover. They skip from sharing to fucking, foregoing any flirtation and with no noticeable chemistry.
The focus seems to be on the beginning and end of character arcs. We forego any journey between the two points.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are moments of comedy that are self-aware and self-deprecating. Jokes burst our own inner prejudices and assumptions of disability. Martinez gives most, if not all, of the gags to her own character. Possibly greedy, but possibly sensible.
The humour is in the style of the stand-up for which she is known. It may even include gags previously proven in her routines. I’m not sure. At one point, she exclaims ‘What the fuck is normal?’. The fact that this is also the title of her popular book may just be a coincidence.
Demanding change…but of whom?
Like a persuasive charity fundraising campaign, All of Us is a personification of statistics. It appeals to our hearts by showing the real people behind the headlines. It paints a bleak picture of an out-of-touch government that values bureaucracy over empathy. And a society where any community spirit is limited to those within our own four walls.
It is a play that demands change. But I’m not sure it is saying anything new. And I’m not clear to whom it is trying to say it.
The audience going to the National Theatre during the typically quiet month of August will be made up of the similarly minded and the already converted. People who will either acknowledge the unfairness of it all, or be living it themselves. As a play, it lacks the originality to bring in a wider crowd.
I would theorise that there may be a bigger aim. If it can get the attention of the right producer and the right channel, it would seem a natural choice for a TV adaptation. Something safe but shocking for an hour drama on BBC2 or Channel 4. It would force some major cuts to be made. Which would be helpful. Maybe then the tale would get the telling – and the audience – it deserves.