PLAYWRIGHT Athena Stevens is one ballsy individual. She’s not scared of anyone or anything. Attitude and anger course through her veins.
Just google her name and you will soon discover what a formidable individual she is. She’s not frightened of taking on corporate giants or property managers if they’ve let her down. Equally she’s adept at using the newish world of social media to make her points and vent her spleen.
Stevens, born with athetoid cerebral palsy, has used one of these spats for the basis of her play Scrounger – directed by Lily McLeish, produced by Sarah Lawrie and running at the Finborough Theatre in London’s Chelsea until February 1.
Sitting in a chair until the very end, and dressed in a brilliant red skirt with a pink top, pink leggings and a pair of shiny black boots, she recalls her battle to get British Airways and London City Airport to compensate her for damage done to her £30,000 wheelchair when booked on a flight to Glasgow. The wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the plane’s hold, was damaged as a result, and Stevens was unceremoniously – and embarrassingly – bundled off the flight.
It’s an impassioned – and provocative – piece of work as Stevens takes the audience through her long quest for compensation. Like a dog with a bone, she refuses to give up despite the protestations of her patient boyfriend, the thumbs down from a solicitor who brings her a conciliatory cup of Starbucks coffee (not the low grade granules stuff she normally drinks) – and website designer Mario who promises much, but delivers little. All while being trapped inside her flat situated in London’s Elephant and Castle. She tweets like crazy and attracts media coverage – in the case of the Guardian, ‘above the fold’ reporting (the best for profile). An online petition attracts 58,000 signatures.
Despite the serious subject matter, Scrounger is not without a dollop of humour. Most is provided by Leigh ‘versatile’ Quinn (her ‘PA’) who plays an assortment of characters – both female and male. They include various employees of British Airways and London City Airport (mostly patronising and unhelpful), the useless solicitor, Mario, her boyfriend and a female friend who won’t go anywhere near Elephant & Castle for fear (seemingly) of catching the plague (both eventually tear verbal chunks out of each other).
Quinn rings bells and concocts a cacophony of sounds from various items on her on-stage desk. Impressive – and there’s even confetti thrown into the bargain. All enhanced by Julian Starr’s effective music, Anthony Doran’s lighting, and Anna Reid’s minimalist set that emphasises Stevens’ somewhat claustrophobic existence.
At over an hour and a half, Scrounger is a long play – some would say a little too long – but it punches hard, at times a little below the belt. No one is spared from the force of nature that is Stevens. She accuses nearly everyone (not just Daily Mail readers but lefties and Guardian readers too) of systematic discrimination against those who live with disabilities while passionately defending her right to take a bolshie stand against the powerful (she settled in the end with British Airways).
As she asks the audience at the end: ‘When you’re old and catch a flight to the Greek Isles, and your wheelchair gets smashed up in the belly of a plane, what are you going to do about it? What are any of you going to do about it?’ Challenging, thought provoking and welcome. Food for thought. As a nation, we continue to fail the most vulnerable, whether it’s the elderly or the disabled.
As for the play’s rather strange title, it’s what some people called her for seeking justice from British Airways. That’s social media for you (it scares me rigid). Not for those who don’t like a dose of vitriol thrown in their general direction .
Post Show Discussion January 22. The event is free to ticket holders for that evening’s performance of the play. Producer Sarah Lawrie will lead a conversation with Scrounger playwright Athena Stevens, the Chair of campaigning organisation 38 Degrees Srabani Sen OBE and the Personal Finance Editor of The Mail on Sunday Jeff Prestridge. Athena, Srabani and Jeff will talk about the play in the context of consumer rights and ‘taking on the system’ – and answer audience questions.
Photos by Lily McLeish