All of Us Review – Francesca Martinez’ Urgent Call for Radical Empathy | national theatre
Ahen Francesca Martinez’s haunting, funny, and deeply moving play begins, two women—one with cerebral palsy (“I prefer ‘shaky’”), the other not disabled—arrive in a therapy session. We might assume that the disabled woman is the patient, but in the first of many inversions of expectation, she is not. Jess (Martinez) is the compassionate therapist…but unable to follow her own advice and reveal her anger, distress, and vulnerability.
Personal, political and even polemical, All of Us was programmed before lockdown, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the atrocities of austerity. The range of care is shrinking and support is being given up. There’s a lot to get angry about, but Jess keeps her emotions in check. Both the physical and emotional exertion of Martinez’s performance are remarkable. “Let out the shaky anger!” urges her neighbor, but it doesn’t come out easily. She claims that everything is fine even if she stays half-dressed while the lights go out.
Georgia Lowe’s raspberry-carpeted stage contains a central twist, and this piece lets us see people from every angle. Under Ian Rickson’s precise but delicate direction, they reveal their dimensions: notably Bryan Dick’s unruly, tearing patient, and an ardent Francesca Mills, whose character may use a wheelchair but cheerfully eschews piety, preferring a spliff and a Tinder hookup (“I am a woozy floozy”).
Although the play is built around awkward, extended conversations, its characters hate having to talk about disabilities or needs. They are not. But whether in formal or everyday conversations, they will withdraw to anything that gets in their way or need to explain themselves. Martinez captures every dodge, frustration, or humorous distraction, but as the cuts bite even harder and the action expands to include public meetings with a sharky local MP, dodging isn’t an option.
While much of her life is shaky, Jess admits she’s drawn to excess control. Some of the play’s jokes and arguments come across too squarely, but it demands that we build a society where we can truly see and appreciate one another. His insistence on radical empathy shines bright. “I’m not broken,” asserts Jess. “I am a unique spark of life. We are all.”