Scrounger by Athena Stevens only showed at the Finborough Theatre in January this year, so it is possibly the most recently filmed show yet to appear on the internet. The piece was nominated for no less than six Offie Awards which gives a good indication of quality. It is also more contemporary in a way that could not possibly have been imagined when the play was first conceived.
Athena Stevens, writer and central performer, is a real force of nature and while I would not normally wish to define anyone by their medical status, this play is all about the repercussions of living with a particular set of circumstance; she was born with athetoid cerebral palsy. In 2015 she was due to fly from London to Scotland but the plane she was on could not accommodate her wheelchair – this despite confirming ahead of time that all would be well. Stevens had to be more or less forcibly taken from the aircraft; she was humiliated and her wheelchair damaged. There followed a long battle to get reparation with the airline blaming the airport and vice versa and her customised wheelchair was not repaired/replaced. This meant Stevens lost her mobility and was confined to her flat for several months experiencing an early taste of the lockdown we have all been undergoing; I suggest that people would now be more generally sympathetic to her plight having gone through a similar process. However, we were at least all in the same proverbial boat. Stevens, or Scrounger as she ironically comes to refer to herself, has to sit at her window and watch normal life passing by. Her boyfriend gives muted support and her best friend none at all; she is too busy training for a charity race to help the Syrian refugees (“or whatever”) ignoring the plight of someone practically on her own doorstep – although she refuses to accept that Elephant and Castle is really in London proper.
So, Stevens turns first to social media to publicise her case and then involves professionals who promise to help; while, to some extent, they do, matters remain unresolved. She is clearly disillusioned with them but reserves her real ire for those who claim a liberal outlook but are not prepared to get their hands dirty. In fact, the sort of people who come to watch a play like Scrounger. And so, at several points (including the opening) the narrative halts, while the audience are harangued for their smug complacency and lack of real empathy. These extraordinary moments are calculated to shock – and they do. There’s a real danger of alienating the very people she is appealing to, but it is all part of Stevens’ persona, take it or leave it.
The justifiable anger is tempered somewhat by the brilliant Leigh Quinn who plays every other role in the unfolding drama – the boyfriend, the best friend, the Uber driver, the stream of British Airways employees, etc. The last are particularly memorable and hilarious as she switches rapidly between them with little more than a change of voice and a gesture. Quinn also works the live sound effects and provides a needed counterpoint to Stevens’ ire. The set from Anna Reid is plain and functional but there are some nice surreal touches such as the model of the wheelchair and window/door openings which light up and indicate a change of mood. Direction from Lily McLeish is generally brisk though I was given to wonder just how much of what we see comes from Stevens’ own perception of how things should be done, for her central performance is very reminiscent of a (bitter) comedy routine.
When I turned on to watch, the auto generated You Tube subtitles automatically sprung into life. I have to say they often bear absolutely no relation to what is being said. They almost provide a comedy routine in themselves: “Elephant and Castle” becomes “elevating castle”, “Vote Labour” becomes “fault namer” and “scrounger” becomes, variously, “stranger”, “grandeur”, “grinder” and other assorted variations. Any swearing is simply ignored and as it’s there to demonstrate a high level of genuine feeling its removal rather undercuts the mood. So maybe the advice should be, where possible, not to use the subtitles at all or at least not to rely on them. The Finborough is only streaming the show a limited number of times – not sure why – make an early date to view if you are going to… and you should.
Scrounger is available via Finborough Theatre’s website but is only available August 1 – 3 & 31. Click here
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