“Do you wish you were normal?” The blunt question is put to Jess, the therapist at the heart of Francesca Martinez’s All of Us. It prompts a sharp intake of breath around the auditorium. What a question to ask of anybody, and what assumptions it contains — who is to define “normal”? Moreover, this is a man with a mass of problems who has arrived at Jess’s door asking the question because she has a visible disability.
All of Us is a state-of-the-nation play: a frank, often funny, often shocking drama about what it is to be disabled or have a chronic condition in contemporary Britain. It’s the latest in the National Theatre’s cumulative examination of who we are, which has roved from Andrea Levy’s Small Island to Alecky Blythe’s Our Generation, which brought teenagers’ voices to the stage.
It’s also the latest drama to demonstrate that having differently abled actors on stage can be not only inclusive but also expansive and enriching, often revealing new dimensions to a play. When Nadia Nadarajah, a deaf actor, played Celia in As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe, it intensified the intimacy between Celia and Rosalind; Arthur Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, is finding new depths in Richard III at the RSC; Daniel Monks, who is partially paralysed, brings fresh intensity to Konstantin’s desire for change in Jamie Lloyd’s staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Amy Trigg, in a wheelchair because of spina bifida, lit up the stage with her brilliant Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me.
At the National, Martinez’s Jess, played with great warmth and wit by the author in Ian Rickson’s staging, has cerebral palsy (though Martinez prefers to describe herself as “wobbly”). This means that Jess has a PhD in psychology and an important job as a therapist but needs help to open a packet of cereal or do up her buttons. When an inexperienced official reassesses Jess’s Personal Independence Payment, she ends up losing her Motability car, her work and her patients. Her friend Poppy, played by the excellent, ebullient Francesca Mills, is a sweary, sexy, funny 21-year-old who wants, like so many people her age, to live a little. But cuts mean that she loses her night-time carer and so is put to bed, in a nappy, at 9pm.
The humiliation of this, the reduction of vibrant people to statistics and problems, the “othering” and the “us and them” thinking, come bursting across the stage. Martinez’s Jess refuses to get angry; her play, on the other hand, is very angry. It is at its best when it sticks tightly with its characters, showing us, rather than telling us, the details of the grim impact of government policies, cuts and shortages.
Where it goes astray is in trying to encompass a whole raft of issues: there are sections of dialogue that become more political rant than political play, which undercuts its impact. Some characters feel very sketchy: both Aidan, Jess’s reluctant client who has been damaged by a toxic childhood, and his father, a rigid Conservative MP, need much more work. This is a shame, as what the play has to say is serious and important and concerns all of us.