The term “lived experience” has become increasingly prevalent in the arts: the idea that first-hand knowledge is needed to authentically convey something. That can be easily debunked (presumably Shakespeare didn’t actually commit multiple murders), but All of Us, a Covid-delayed play about the effect of welfare reform and austerity on disabled people, does gain a core truthfulness – along with sparky humour and raw anger – thanks to its creation by comedian Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy.
Conversely, there’s a difference between that first-hand knowledge and crafting a successful play – and one staged at the National Theatre, no less. This debut effort from Martinez, who also stars, feels rather like a wrestling match. Though the main characters are vividly drawn, they’re essentially dramatised case studies; the issue, or the cause, is always competing for attention with the people. That becomes an insurmountable problem in the weaker second half, a numbing diatribe that puts statistics and sloganeering centre stage.
Yet within this near-three-hour show there are the makings of an involving and genuinely enlightening play. Martinez is excellent as self-described “wobbly” therapist Jess, who is more comfortable solving other people’s problems than asking for help. She’s a constant sounding board for her impetuous pregnant flatmate, and she befriends wheelchair-using neighbour Poppy, a 21-year-old party animal.
Gloriously played by Francesca Mills, Poppy is a firecracker – a foul-mouthed Northerner with green streaked-hair, zero boundaries and a hectic Tinder schedule to gleefully recount. She’s by far the most effective illustration of Martinez’s thesis: that people with disabilities shouldn’t be “othered”, either patronised or held up as saintly inspirations (Poppy detests the Paralympics), but treated like everyone else. Yet when Poppy loses her night carer, her dignity and autonomy are obliterated: she has to be put to bed by 9pm in an incontinence nappy.
Jess also has her independence snatched away when an insulting reassessment, carried out by an incompetent novice, results in the loss of her adapted car and then her job. But Martinez won’t trust us to get the point just by watching this unfold. She spells out the issues via a townhall featuring a cartoonishly evil Tory MP; he might as well be tying a damsel to the railroad tracks while twirling his moustache. A Question Time-style audience pits the humanised disabled community against stock villains like a stupid, racist right-wing voter – basically White Van Man made flesh.
Add in a deeply improbable plot twist and an ethically dubious romance, plus a blizzard of state-of-the-nation topics and clumsy psychoanalysing – “Hurt people hurt people” – and the play loses its way. But there are still promising moments. Martinez, naturally, knows how to craft a brilliant zinger: anticipating her assessor asking if she’s “still wobbly”, Jess quips “How about I give you a wet shave and we’ll find out?”. Bryan Dick and Lucy Briers put in thoughtful performances, even if the former’s poor little rich boy is inescapably clichéd.
Ian Rickson’s in-the-round staging is rather plodding, though the mini revolve adds some dynamism and a few quiet moments register strongly – like Jess battling to pour a bowl of cereal. But there’s a sense of preaching to the choir here. Martinez’s blunt campaigning fury is understandable, but is that the best way to effect change? A stealthier approach might yield better results – and a more dexterous piece of theatre.
Until Sept 24. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk