“you wouldn’t expect a play about dealing with grief to be funny, but this one is”
Sometimes dark comedy can come from pain, as a way of coping, as catharsis or simply as something that happens. Writer Josephine Starte says: “Then a close friend died suddenly and depression turned into layers of grief: hysteria, disbelief, panic, despondency. Being this heartbroken seemed like something that could easily ruin my life, and my impulse was to write about it, to take back a little control.”
And KillingIt is the result. Three women try to cope with the loss of a loved one in different ways, doing what works for them, or trying to. They support each other, not always understanding, but wanting all of them to find a way of being that works. The girlfriend, Molly, played by Starte, has turned her grief into a standup act, much as in real life she has fuelled this fine piece of writing. Molly is funny, warm and likeable, sometimes stepping out to share her thoughts with the audience; pieces from her show. Doña Crol is the mother, channeling her energy into making YouTube videos about flower arranging, and the grandmother is the fabulous Janet Henfrey, full of mischief and plotting to assassinate the president. Three ages of women, three different ways of coping. There is strength, vulnerability, laughter and weeping on stage, and plenty of laughter and a few tears from the audience too. Director Lily McLeish’s decision to have three sections of stage, each inhabited by one woman, gives a sense of their aloneness, a place they return too after being with each other. Anna Reid’s set frames these three areas, creating believable environments that complement the characters of the women and their interactions, helped by Anthony Doran’s lighting and Julian Starr’s sound.
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect a play about dealing with grief to be funny, but this one is. It’s also full of feeling and warmth. It was a pleasure to see two older women on stage, especially Henfrey, who is in her eighties, and refreshing that a young woman can write so well for older characters.
“a great example of a play that does not appeal to our human desire for resolution, but instead rightly demonstrates that the fight for true equality and justice is far from over”
Directed by Lily McLeish, Scrounger is an autobiographical play that recounts a traumatic incident experienced by Athena Stevens at London City Airport in 2015. Born with athetoid cerebral palsy, Stevens was removed from a British Airways flight when staff could not get her £30,000 electric wheelchair into the hold. When Stevens’ chair was returned to her, it was severely damaged, leaving her without autonomous mobility and trapped in her flat for months before she received settlement.
Through Twitter hashtags, an appeal to EU law, and a petition organised by campaign group 38 Degrees, Stevens boldly embarks on trying to a change a system that is inherently stacked against her.
Stevens however does not only point blame at our Conservative government, but also the show’s presumed audience, specifically, “the left leaning, Guardian reading, Daily Mail hating, Oxfam giving, colour blind seeing, red voting, paper straw using, conflict avoiding, zen loving, feminist supporting, always for the few…liberal minded you.” The villains of this story are not just the incompetent staff she had encountered, but Stevens’ yoga-loving boyfriend and obtusely middle-class friend Emma as well, all of whom are played excellently by Leigh Quinn.
A central theme of the play is conflict and the inherent privilege of being able to avoid it. Stevens notes that amongst her friends she is known as always being ‘up for a fight’ but explains that her very existence as a disabled individual necessitates this. The faith that Stevens’ boyfriend has in the legal system to deliver justice highlights this well and succeeds in making the audience consider how they too may just be another cog in the flawed machine.
The production is split into some-twenty chapters titled with an exciting summation of the contents of the coming scenes though what follows sometimes only lasts a couple of minutes. Simultaneously, when the chapters reach double figures, there is little plot to show for it. There would certainly be great benefit to the performance’s pace in amalgamating a few chapters.
There is also little to no sense of how much real time has passed until Quinn suddenly announces halfway through the show that it has been 35 days since the incident. Based on the events that have unfolded by this point, the audience would be safe to assume it had been less than a week. Signposting the days more clearly, and perhaps even replacing the chapter titles with the day count, would certainly help to reduce moments where the play feels stagnant.
A wonky white house set (Anna Reid) surrounds the stage with two respective doors and neon-framed windows for entrance, exit and pop-ups. When she’s not playing a plethora of different characters, Quinn sits at a desk to the front right of the stage from which she accesses several props, a soundboard and a microphone. The sound (Julian Starr) and lighting (Anthony Doran) does well to match the mood on stage, though some of the production’s most powerful moments occur when everything is stripped back and Stevens addresses the audience without the glitz and glamour of the theatre.
Scrounger offers an important narrative about oppression and non-linear progression. Crucially, Stevens’ story does not end in rainbows and sunshine with everything tied up in a little bow. There is no great monetary victory; no law created to protect those vulnerable to similar mistreatment; and no real consequences for the companies involved. Scrounger is a great example of a play that does not appeal to our human desire for resolution, but instead rightly demonstrates that the fight for true equality and justice is far from over.