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

Francesca Martinez was three years old when she knew she wanted to spend her life on stage. Best known for her standup, Martinez never planned on becoming a comedian – the original dream was to act, she says.

Martinez, 44, is sitting outside London’s National Theatre, sipping from a water bottle. After a 22-year detour as an award-winning comedian who is volubly “wobbly” (the word she uses to describe her cerebral palsy), she has been delivered back to her first love. She is performing a leading role in the National’s All of Us, directed by Ian Rickson, which also marks her playwriting debut. On a break from rehearsals, she is feeling relaxed. “I like a new challenge,” she says, petite and bright-eyed. “But,” she adds, her voice rising to raucousness, “childhood Francesca would be so flabbergasted that I’m doing this … as an actor!”

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All of Us was commissioned after a single meeting with the National’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, who “took a chance” on Martinez. The play very nearly didn’t happen at all. Due to be staged in March 2020, it was shut down two days before its first show, as a result of the first Covid lockdown. “It felt like very cruel timing,” she says. “I went from gearing up to share the play with the world to sitting on my sofa in pyjamas watching Netflix.”

All of Us is not a comedy, as you might expect, but a state-of-the-nation drama, revolving round a group of friends in austerity Britain, each struggling to live before they come together to demand accountability from those in power. Martinez has redrafted the play to include Covid, self-isolation and the strains of the past two years, though its backdrop is the legacy of austerity and the collateral damage to individual lives. Some characters facing cuts to their disability care are confined to their beds and become deeply depressed. Others are forced to wear incontinence pads because of the lack of night-time carers, or have benefits assessments that leave them unable to work.

The company of All of Us in rehearsal at the National Theatre.
The company of All of Us in rehearsal at the National Theatre. Photograph: Helen Murray

These stories, Martinez says, “are all based on real-life cases. What’s happening is so bad right now, I didn’t have to make it up. If anything, there are worse stories. When I first talked to the National I was, like: ‘Look, this is happening all around the country in silence.’ It feels to me like an epic crime that is taking place behind closed doors.”

It’s a situation that Martinez was following closely long before the pandemic started. In 2014, she helped to secure a landmark parliamentary debate calling for an assessment of the impact that welfare reforms were having on sick and disabled people. That campaigning work exposed her to the woeful human cost of the cuts: “I was hearing about people taking their own lives, people struggling to eat, struggling to heat their homes. All those stories and experiences started to percolate in my head and I felt a real desire to shine a light with this play. I also wanted to explore the question of what makes those in power act the way they do.”

Talking of power, we meet on the day of Boris Johnson’s resignation speech. Martinez is a Labour supporter and diehard fan of Jeremy Corbyn. While the characters in her play struggle to get through the pandemic, her own lockdown was not arduous. She caught up on sleep, exercised, read Eckhart Tolle and embraced living in the moment. “I realised that all I have is now. You don’t know how long you have. Enjoy it.” She spent the time with her partner of 16 years, Kevin Hely, who also stars in the play as a war veteran with PTSD.

Martinez has, in some ways, come full circle, having started out as an actor on Grange Hill. Her parents spotted the advert for it and she was desperate to get the part, not least because she wanted to escape her secondary school, which she loathed. Born into a supportive north London family (her father, of Spanish heritage, is a playwright, and her mother is an author and former journalist), she was an effervescent and assured child who loved performing – until she went to an all-girls secondary at the age of 11. By terrible coincidence I went to the same school a few years before her and we bond over our mutually unsavoury memories of it. “High school was a really difficult place,” she says. “I dreaded going in every morning so when Grange Hill happened, it was a lifeline thrown to me and I grabbed it with both hands.”

Did she get bullied? “Yes there was that, but I also didn’t have any friends and felt very lonely. I knew I was wobbly, of course I did, but until that point it was just like having curly hair. It sounds mad, realising that you’re disabled, but it was more realising how the world saw it that was so shocking. The hardest thing in my life hasn’t been being wobbly, it’s been living in a world that can’t handle difference. Within a few months I’d lost all my self-esteem.”

Did she want to perform in spite of her disability or because of it, given how the world saw her? “I’m sure it was partly tied to being wobbly and wanting to prove myself – that I could be funny, engaging, magnetic. Performing was a way of showing the world what I could do rather than being judged on what I couldn’t do. I developed a strong sense of humour: if I could make them laugh I would win their respect, somehow.”

Actor Crystal Condie and Francesca Martinez in rehearsal for All of Us.
Actor Crystal Condie and Francesca Martinez in rehearsal for All of Us. Photograph: Helen Murray

After five series of Grange Hill, she was determined to keep acting, despite the dearth of parts. Her father wrote a film especially for her. “It never got made but he made my character a comedian. I remember reading it and going: ‘Dad, this is amazing. Julia Roberts would wobble it up to win an Oscar for this!’ But I asked him: ‘Why did you make me a standup comic? It’s so incredibly terrifying.’ He said he thought I’d be really good at it.”

She didn’t believe him but signed up to a standup workshop at City Lit, in London, for research purposes: “I went full De Niro – so I could act the part. I stayed silent for six whole weeks in that workshop. It terrified me because what I could see, very clearly, was that standup is not something you can do if you’re not happy with yourself – and I was not happy with myself. Something in me knew that if I did it, I would have to, at some level, accept myself. I was still carrying around a lot of pain, insecurity and self-loathing created by that schooling experience.”

But in week seven, she mustered her courage and did her first routine in class. “For the first time in public, I referred to myself as ‘wobbly’. Up until then I’d been so in denial and so ashamed that I hadn’t mentioned it. I did a whole routine about how hard it is to use drugs when you’re wobbly – and people laughed. In that moment I realised something very profound: I had spent years trying to be normal, to fit in and be accepted, but actually the way to acceptance is to accept yourself as you are.”

Bonnie Baddoo, Emma Tooze, Crystal Condie and Francesca Martinez in rehearsal for All of Us.
Bonnie Baddoo, Emma Tooze, Crystal Condie and Francesca Martinez in rehearsal for All of Us. Photograph: Helen Murray

She went straight home and told her parents: “Forget about the film. I want to do this. Within the year, she had won the Open Mic award at the Edinburgh festival – becoming, in 2000, the first woman to do so – and it set her off on her stellar trajectory in standup: “It forces you to stand in front of a room of strangers and go: ‘This is me.’ It turns pain into laughter, which is beautiful and healing.”

Martinez has continued to speak out over the years about the world’s selective vision around disability. In 2011, she revealed her dismay about a TV sitcom pilot that stalled after having been in development with the BBC for five long years. At the time she said she didn’t understand the corporation’s nerves around it. Is it very different now? “Yes,” she says. “When I started out, there was a lot of fear around difference. In recent years I’ve seen that change to excitement and I think the industry has started to recognise that there are all these untapped stories and lives that haven’t been depicted before. There’s a real shift happening. It’s slow, but it’s happening.”

The success of Tim Renkow’s outrageous BBC sitcom Jerk – the comedian has cerebral palsy – is testament to how far things have come in less than a decade. So would Martinez be able to create a TV show with a disabled character at its heart today? “Well, I am at the moment,” she reveals. “Who knows if it will get made but I think there is real interest there. Ultimately, it’s not about ticking boxes; it’s about reflecting life as it is. That’s all increasing diversity is: not leaving out huge swathes of humanity.”

All of Us is at the National Theatre: Dorfman to 24 September.