SCROUNGER plays the Finborough Theatre until February 1st. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Challenging play about disability, discrimination and spirit forces audiences to think long and hard

SCROUNGER isn’t an easy play – either for its cast or its audience. It’s about a culture of unconscious discrimination that people with disabilities have to face every day of their lives.

At some point in our lives most of us have felt powerless against the forces of big business when trying to complain or right a wrong. We might be ignored, insulted, or simply brushed off. But we can work around these things. However, when a person living with a disability is placed in that same position, their life could easily grind to a halt.

Scrounger- the play’s main character (played by writer Athena Stevens)- first appears as a ballsy, confident woman who is living her life as she wishes. The event at the centre of the play shows how one piece of her carefully built support system- her custom wheelchair- getting damaged affects her entire system, damaging with it Scrounger’s confidence and mental well-being.

Surrounded in the play by superficial people quick to talk and “like”, but who never act, writer/actor Stevens (as Scrounger) pretty much reads the audience the riot act about do-nothing liberals. This is confrontational, angry stuff and as the story proceeds it’s easy to see why Scrounger feels this way.

Based on a true story in 2015 when boarding a flight from London, the airline damaged her wheelchair and then unceremoniously dumped her off the flight so as to not further inconvenience all the other passengers. She received zero help and a lot of stress. If an able-bodied person were in that position there would be things they could do, like write down names and details, but Scrounger can’t, and receives no help; she is left with the stress of trying to remember all the details, names, incidents in her head. Her resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness throughout this ordeal are impressive, but these qualities also take their toll. We feel the rawness of her anger as her world implodes.

After taking to YouTube (and her sizeable following), lots of likes and a petition are started, but nothing actually changes for an unbearably long time.

Encouraged to complain passively (Tweet, videos, etc) these non-aggressive routes grate against her personality, which changes over time, showing the toll this chapter has taken upon her.

The issues raised are important- the constant inequality and institutional discrimination experienced by a woman who happens to have a disability simply trying to go about her daily life.  All the time being keenly aware of others’ conscious or unconscious prejudices, where they ignorantly see disability distorted through their lens- as an inconvenience, curse or embarrassment.

Regulations supposed to help are simply more talk on paper- with no real substance behind the generalised well-meaning façade of their writing, so they can’t help her.

The linear story is divided into small chapters, each prefaced with some quirky music and a “teaser” to lighten the tension with a little humour.

Stevens is trying to open our eyes to the fact that a wheelchair maybe just a wheelchair to the able-bodied, but that to its owner, their wheelchair is a part of their identity and a part of what enables them to live their life as independently as possible: breaking the chair equates to breaking the person’s liberty, freedom and spirit.

The lines between drama and reality blur along the story’s route, and at points it feels unsure to me whether Stevens is playing the character or herself, especially in the breakout sections, but her performance through the rest of the show is nicely balanced between anger, sarcasm and a quirky sense of humour.

Special mention for Leigh Quinn as the PA who impresses in fulfilling a dizzying number of quick-change roles in support of Stevens.  

In some ways SCROUNGER echoes FAIRVIEW in making us stop and deeply think about something that we thought we had “dealt with”. Although very different to FAIRVIEW, SCROUNGER is just as important in its highlighting the difficulties of people’s attitudes towards those living with disability. This is a provocative and necessary play.

As Stevens reminds us pointedly, any one of us could succumb to some kind of disability at any time. Is it only then that we will grasp what it is that she’s been trying to tell us?

SCROUNGER plays the Finborough Theatre until February 1st. Information and tickets here

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