Writer: Athena Stevens
Director: Lily McLeish
Athena Stevens is no stranger to provocative storytelling, and her new play Scrounger, in which she dramatises a real-life campaign against a leading airline who broke her wheelchair, premiered at the Finborough Theatre in January of this year. Now added to the Finborough Theatre Online series, Stevens’ play is tirade against well-meaning, left-leaning liberals who run charity marathons but won’t lift a finger to help a friend when it really matters.
After boarding a flight to Glasgow to attend an important interview, Scrounger is informed that her electric wheelchair won’t fit into the hold and she is unceremoniously dispatched from the flight. Grounded with a broken chair, the now housebound Scrounger decides to fight injustice, beginning a prolonged social media campaign against the airline that has unexpected consequences for her life and relationships.
There is nothing comfortable about watching this play and just as the audience begins to feel outraged on Stevens’ behalf, she turns the tables on the viewer, asking what all our woke sensibilities really add up to. It begins with a scathing confrontation directed at the audience questioning why we imagine we are good people for watching her show, and at various points in the production, she breaks out of her own story to confound our expectations.
Performed on a semi-realised set designed by Anna Reid, most of Scrounger is concerned with the very sequence of events that Stevens asks us to question, divided into 26 Chapters that cover endless calls to the British Airways Customer Service Helpdesk, discussions with lawyers and online campaigners, EU regulations, press interest, calls with friends and a running count of social media engagement based on likes and retweets.
In Chapter 22, as the power on the Finborough stage is momentarily lost, Stevens begins to talk about the nature of narrative and trajectory, a false trail, she explains, which storytellers use to make the audience feel comfortable and to believe that progress is being made. It is an intriguing point and one the show makes abundantly clear in Stevens’ almost contemptuous attitude to the viewer. And while the reconstructed elements of her campaign are hugely entertaining, Stevens asks us to question why we always edit-out the darker elements to make life seem more palatable or the show a bit shorter.
The show is devised with a heightened absurdity, embracing the nonsense of it all but never detracts from the outrage beneath the surface directed at various behaviours and expectations in modern life. Few escape Stevens’ critical glare, be it big corporations, lawmakers, her friends and even herself, questioning her own behaviour and immersion in a period that left her trapped at home and obsessed with beginning a revolution that would never come.
Stevens is an engaging storyteller, navigating between the roles of writer and performer with ease while co-star Leigh Quinn brilliantly portrays a mammoth cast while operating some of the scene change apparatus. Scrounger starts to feel repetitive towards the end and the portrayal of friend ‘Emma’ feels a little too clichéd, while far more of the scene-breaking interjections would make this stronger But Stevens’ message is loud and clear: if you think you’re a good person, you’re probably not, and what are you really going to do about it?
Available here on 31 August 2020