Athena Stevens’ new play recounts her real-life dispute with British Airways and London City Airport; one woman’s struggle against age-old enemies of the people like thought-terminating bureaucracy, cynicism, self-interest, and incompetence.
What gives this battle an additional dimension is the playwright’s athetoid cerebral palsy (the opposite of spasticity, she helpfully notes). Consequently, the airline damaging her bespoke wheelchair (and ejecting her from her flight when they couldn’t load it despite being pre-notified of their passenger’s special requirements) rendered Stevens immobile and housebound for several months. The ensuing social paralysis, sardonically recalled and given an additional layer of absurdity with a jaunty background score and expressionist set, cost Stevens a lot of fairweather friends. As the play progresses, one feels this, not the David V Goliath setup, is the real story.
Scrounger is a defensive piece of work; the author’s cynicism and bitterness cuts across its absurd vignettes and myriad of broad supporting characters, played with a twinkle by Stevens’ versatile “PA”, Leigh Quinn. That said characters have been reduced in this way – essentially boiled down to clichés and in the case her ex, the label “boyfriend”, signals Stevens’ antipathy toward the players who, as she sees it, were similarly reductive, treating her as an angry disabled woman whose righteousness and expectations made them uncomfortable.
There’s similar antipathy toward the imagined audience for this play, proving that caricature cuts both ways. Scrounger is strongest when its weakest, as a series of sitcom-like setups (it plays like a TV pilot-in-waiting) that make a serious point about the treatment, both disdainful and patronising, of disabled people. Stevens fares less well when berating her audience for their imagined hypocrisy, virtue signalling and moral cowardice.
It’s accrued anger, built from encounters with nice middle-class people who appropriate the fight for social justice as a badge without doing the work; a lecture that doubles as a call to activism; but the assumptions it makes are dehumanising – unfortunate in a play about championing an individual’s humanity. “I don’t know how to engage with people on the wrong side of justice,” she tells us, and we believe her.
Stevens’ disability presents some practical challenges. As a performer, she can be hard to understand. I spent half an hour wondering why she kept referring to a ginger vacation at the Elephant and Castle, imagining an influx of redheads to the area, only to realise she was saying “gentrification”. This is not to belittle Stevens. She has a play at the Finborough and I don’t. However, her delivery distends the play and strips the dialogue of some its implied comic rhythm. An interval would have been a welcome bit of punctuation.
I won’t patronise Stevens by recording that Scrounger is a brave or important piece of work, but as an insight into a member of society failed by systemic stupidity and social illiteracy, it’s relevant, as well as dryly funny – the right kind of funny in a stone-faced world.