Available on a very short viewing window is Athena Stevens’ fascinating play SCROUNGER, available to view from 9am on Saturday, 1 August until midnight on Monday, 3 August, and again from 9am until midnight on Monday, 31 August.
The first production of the Finborough Theatre’s 40th anniversary year, the world premiere of Finborough Theatre Playwright in Residence and Olivier Award nominee Athena Stevens’s new play SCROUNGER.
On the streets of Elephant and Castle, everyone likes to make speculations about Scrounger. She needs help, she must not be aware of the complexities of the world, she is sent from the demons to torture her mum… at least according to her Nigerian Uber driver.
Scrounger doesn’t care. A successful online personality, she’s got more power from her bedroom than anyone on the Southwark estates could dream of. She’s educated, she’s ballsy, and with a huge network of online allies, Scrounger is a woman who knows how to make change happen.
That is, until an airline destroys her wheelchair.
Inspired by real events and a lawsuit initiated by Stevens herself, Scrounger drives towards the realities of how Britain is failing its most vulnerable and the extreme cost paid by those seeking justice.
You can read my three and a half-star review of SCROUNGER 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