Athena Stevens as Scrounger sits in an armchair in the middle of the stage; a simple white wall is behind her with two doors and two windows surrounded by colour-changing LEDs.
Stevens begins saying “you’ll say how hard it was to watch me but you stuck through the awkward moments because you are a good person, waiting for a poor outsider like me to be a vibrator to your ego”. The silence in the room is deafening, us liberal theatregoers hear the truth in these words. This only intensifies later when P.A., Leigh Quinn, says “don’t vote Tory” and we all explode into a ‘hear, hear’ of Guardian-loving laughter.
Stevens tells us the story of how she was removed from a BA flight because they couldn’t get her wheelchair into the hold, despite her calling two weeks ahead. Worse still, in the process of them getting the £30,000 wheelchair through the airport or onboard the flight it is broken thus leaving Scrounger confined to her house for months.
This story is told in over 20 chapters – it is a pacey play, and I am gripped. The segmentation of the story is not in the script, and is a brilliant directorial decision from Lily McLeish. These sections allow for some mean multi-roling from Quinn as: Emma, Scrounger’s Best Friend; Scrounger’s Boyfriend; Mario, a well-meaning but ultimately useless man who runs a website on airline regulations; and a host of Uber drivers and airline staff.
Stevens performance is subtle and moving in her monologues of despair during her entrapment in her own flat due to her disabling by the airline who take no responsibility for their role, and she contrasts these moments with her knack for physical comedy: in one particular highlight answering her phone and allowing it to hang from the cord and swing freely when she has little interest in the conversation.
Scrounger’s frustration at the microaggressions against people with disabilities from, worst of all, people who consider themselves ‘good’ people, is a recurring theme. Emma doing a charity run for the kids in “Siberia” and “Serbia” (Syria) shows that despite her considering herself a good person concerned with gentrification and war “you know how I feel about Lendlease” at the crux of it fails to be, simply, a good friend. Scrounger’s boyfriend obsesses about yoga and “releasing the past” but “doesn’t like conflict” and increasingly tries to silence Scrounger’s quest for justice.
One criticism I have is that the portrayal of Mario plays on stereotypes of the ‘untrustworthy Italian’, channelling the Godfather and other gangster films: first seen in a fedora and with an espresso cup. This is a true story so it’s likely Mario is a real person, but the characterisation is insensitive and particularly out of place in a piece that questions our morality.
But, I love this piece. It is a great concoction of strong performance, lighting and direction. Stevens’ writing and performance of her own experience punches me in the chest, leaving me with the questions: What am I going to do about it? Am I an Emma or a Boyfriend? Or am I a Scrounger, Martin Luther King and Gandhi who do what needs to be done to make the world a better place?
Scrounger is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 1 February. For more information and tickets visit the Finborough Theatre website.