All of Us review – Francesca Martinez’s urgent call for radical empathy

As Francesca Martinez’s urgent, funny and intensely moving play begins, two women – one with cerebral palsy (“I prefer ‘wobbly’”), the other able-bodied – arrive for a therapy session. We might assume the disabled woman is the patient but in the first of many reversals of expectation, it’s not so. Jess (Martinez) is the compassionate therapist … yet she can’t follow her own advice and expose her fury, need and vulnerability.

Personal, political, even polemical, All of Us was programmed before lockdown, but the pandemic has only sharpened the cruelties of austerity. Care provision shrinks, support is abandoned. There’s much to be angry about, but Jess keeps a lid on emotion. Both the physical and emotional labour of Martinez’s performance are striking. “Let out the wobbly rage!” her neighbour urges, but it doesn’t readily emerge. She maintains that everything is fine, even when left half-dressed while the lights go out.

Georgia Lowe’s raspberry-carpeted stage includes a central revolve and this play makes us consider people from every angle. Under Ian Rickson’s precise yet delicate direction, they reveal their dimensions: particularly Bryan Dick’s recalcitrant, lacerating patient, and an incandescent Francesca Mills, whose character may use a wheelchair but gleefully refuses pieties, preferring a spliff and a Tinder hookup (“I am a woozy floozy”).

Related: Francesca Martinez: ‘It’s hard living in a world that can’t handle difference’

Although the play is built on uncomfortable, extended conversations, its characters hate having to discuss disability or need. That’s not who they are. But whether in formal or everyday talk, they’re dragged back to whatever stands in their way or are required to explain themselves. Martinez captures each evasion, frustration or humorous deflection, but as the cuts bite yet harder and the action broadens to include public meetings with a sharkish local MP, evasion isn’t an option.

With much of her life wobbling, Jess admits she is drawn to excessive control. Some of the play’s jokes and arguments land too squarely on the nose, but it demands we build a society where we can truly see and value one another. Its insistence on radical empathy shines bright. “I’m not broken,” Jess claims. “I’m a unique spark of life. We all are.”