‘Part of being a creative person who happens to have a disability, is that everyone thinks something you’ve encountered should be written as a show.” So writes Athena Stevens in this play’s introduction. She cites daily struggles but also frustration at how it has become her job, as playwright and “victim”, to dramatise them.
Here, she does just that. In 2015, Stevens was asked to leave a flight because her wheelchair could not be accommodated on the plane. It was returned to her broken.
Her character, Scrounger, is subsequently housebound for months, hoping to find justice but increasingly sucked into a vortex of opaque regulation that appears to protect disabled people but contains convenient loopholes. Her well-meaning boyfriend stands by with encouraging homilies but ultimately lets her down in her mission to change the system.
Scrounger’s online petitions are signed and her tweets are liked; yet change is not mobilised by her supporters. The satire steers into cliche at times, though stays amusing: her boyfriend’s yogic mantra is “inhale the future, exhale the past” while her north London best friend is running a marathon for “Syrian kids fleeing Assad or whatever”.
Stevens, who was born with athetoid cerebral palsy, was nominated for an Olivier award for her play Schism. Her tricksy storytelling is given a delightfully non-realist staging here from director Lily McLeish and designer Anna Reid. Stevens narrates while Leigh Quinn dextrously performs multiple characters in Scrounger’s tale, sometimes acting them out, other times mimicking them, alongside a toolbox of sound effects. There is quirky neon lighting, confetti and surreal props including a miniature wheelchair.
The fourth wall is broken before Quinn’s entry, in a very different tone, when Scrounger addresses the audience and implicates us as smug, left-leaning liberals with open disdain. “You think it’s brave that I am up here,” she says. It is unclear if this is drama or real life and it is a dangerous moment in the auditorium.
Quinn’s arrival leavens the mood and gives the meta-theatre its comic mischief and cuteness. Stevens’ contempt bubbles beneath, erupting again when the stage lights are apparently fused and giving her the opportunity for another direct address. However charming Quinn’s presence is, one wishes for this dark, discomfiting tone to be further explored.
It is brave to make a play whose central plot line is a broken wheelchair and an EU regulation. But laws are about people and this story is about the burning injustice – and powerlessness – that Scrounger is left to feel.
Scrounger is at the Finborough theatre, London, until 1 February.