At the very start of Scrounger, Athena Stevens, the writer and main performer of this autobiographical tragicomedy, berates the left-leaning, well-meaning audience members for the ultimate emptiness of the act of going to see a play written by a disabled person about their miserable experiences. It’s an amusing, provocative intro, but by the end of this sorry tale the point has been well and truly made. I leave feeling discomfited, maybe even ashamed, about my willingness to just go on living my life in a society that fails certain people so profoundly.
Scrounger tells the story of what happened in 2015 after Stevens, who has athetoid cerebral palsy (which limits her movement), had her £25,000 wheelchair broken by British Airways staff trying to load it onto a plane that was about to fly her from London to Glasgow. After being unable to get the chair into the hold, the airline removed her from the plane and sent her home. Without a working wheelchair, Stevens was left unable to leave her flat in London for months while she tried to find a way to force either BA or London City Airport to replace her chair.
Stevens narrates her experiences with an enjoyably dry wit, while the other performer, Leigh Quinn, takes on a raft of other characters including Stevens’ boyfriend, a pair of lawyers, and multiple BA staff. The central story is fascinating and well told, but is weighed down by some less than brilliant sections of humour, often aimed at the pretensions of metropolitan liberals. (I can’t think of anything less funny or interesting than jokes about whether Elephant & Castle is in central London. Is there honestly anywhere on earth more parochial than the English capital?)
The well stitched-together soundtrack (designed by Julian Starr), which combines genres from soothing classical tunes to funky jingles, contributes the sense of a raised eyebrow to the proceedings, and combined with the colourful, cartoony visual design by Anna Reid, brings to mind something like a Super Mario game. That’s all shattered when the stage lighting apparently fails towards the end, a moment in which Stevens returns to the theme of the opening monologue, reminding the audience that this is not a nice story with a sense of closure.
By the end of the play (on a Friday after a long first week back at work) my shoulders and buttocks are very sore. But at least I’m able to stand up and walk downstairs, out of the theatre and into the Finborough Arms pub below. On the way, my friend raises the pertinent question: ‘how does she get up there?’ A quick check of the theatre’s website to find out if there’s a secret lift somewhere reveals that, astonishingly, it doesn’t even offer an accessible toilet. Stevens has an established relationship with the Finborough so must find it a tolerable venue in which to work – but what an indication of the shit so many disabled people have to deal with day in, day out.