by Toby Skelton
Shortly after the 2016 amendments to the assessment of Personal Independence Payments (PIP), a cartoon scolding the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) began doing the rounds on social media. In it, a figure sits behind a desk declaring: “If they drown, they need PIP. If they float, they weren’t ill.” whilst a woman is dragged out of the office by her hair. Accompanied by the caption “Conservatives Disability Policy”, the illustration caught a lot of online attention for this comparison of the DWP’s practices to those of the elementally evil Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Some found it an absurdly distasteful comparison; others deemed it a justified piece of satirical exaggeration. But as Amie M Marie deftly exposes in her new play Scrounge, the cartoon was barely hyperbolic in its analogy.
Based on genuine conversations between “disabled people and assessors, doctors, and the public, as well as whistleblowers”, Scrounge is an undeniably powerful piece of modern theatre. Marie illustrates the PIP assessment process through a holistic lens, following the intersecting stories of Carol Joyce, a disabled woman requiring near-constant 24 hour care, her daughter and primary carer Hannah, and Abby Thomson, a newly-employed assessor of PIP claimants. The first two-thirds of the piece carefully balance Carol’s experience of how daily life is affected by chronic illness – as well as how it influences Hannah’s life in turn – with Abby’s experience as she learns to navigate the deliberately oppressive and shockingly cruel practices that are essential for her to succeed in her new job. These characters are beautifully drawn-out and their relationships expertly crafted. Watching Carol’s desire to see Hannah move on and focus on her career conflicting with the reality of how dependent she is on her daughter just to get through the day is devastating, as is witnessing Abby’s moral compass gradually dim with each claimant she interviews as she is moulded by the Employer into the kind of worker the system requires. This kaleidoscope of conflicting needs, ethical dilemmas, and personal struggles culminates in a truly distressing finale in which the three protagonists finally meet for Carol’s PIP assessment. Carol has her application denied, despite all that we have seen her go through, because Abby – now tellingly re-branded as ‘the Assessor’ – has finally metamorphosed into what the system compels her to be.
The dialogue is piercing and occasionally Pinteresque in its realism, keeping the text steadily rooted in reality. Occasional forays into penetrating the fourth wall prevent the audience from remaining passive witnesses to what’s happening onstage; when the characters directly address the audience they are pleading, seeking answers, desperate for the recognition that is being denied them. The audience are no longer free to completely separate themselves from the unfair trials the protagonists are having to endure. It is testament to Marie’s dexterity as a playwright that she is able to successfully keep this realism and meta-theatricality in proportion without letting the play fall into a state of tonal confusion.
As the plot unfolds and Abby’s ethically-conscious character gradually rusts into that of yet another dissociated governmental employee, Marie underlines a subtle yet vitally important distinction regarding this system of benefit assessment. It is unquestionably an immoral system, not simply an amoral one. There is a distastefully glib argument often adopted by those attempting to defend PIP assessment procedure: the system only seems cruel to our unobjective minds. The process is organised and conducted within a purely objective structure, so clearly any result that sends a claimant out empty-handed can’t be seen as intentionally malicious – unfortunate, perhaps, but not intentionally harmful. Those of a more moderate political temperament might push back slightly, suggesting that the system may need some reform to ensure that fewer applicants are denied benefits they unquestionably need; these unfortunate consequences are the result of a flawed system, but the solution is to develop a better calculus of who deserves what, tweaking rather than overthrowing this ‘amoral’ operation that looks at figures rather than feelings.
These defences of the status quo are equally self-deceiving, and Marie quashes them conclusively by taking us into the reality of the assessment room. Under pressure from the DWP authorities, assessors seek any conceivable excuse to deny the applications they receive, ranging from whether the candidates can hold a pen or not, to how clean their clothes are, or even just how lucid they appear to be in the interview. From the outset, they are looking to say “No”.
With Abby as our avatar, we’re given an astute and harrowing insight into how this abusive process is maintained:
EMPLOYER: Our quota is to reject eighty percent of applications. Only one in five is supposed to leave this building with a recommendation for receiving PIP. ABBY: How? (pause) Honestly, how? Everyone I’ve seen is disabled. There’s no fraudsters. There’s no one who isn’t struggling. EMPLOYER: And that’s the conundrum, Abby. That’s the impossible situation we’re in. We have to obey the quota or the lot of us can be replaced. (pauses) Abby, you said it yourself. We have bills to pay. ABBY: (with quiet dread) Bills. My flat, the loans. EMPLOYER: It’s just a job.
This is where Scrounge stands above the rest as a political text; it goes beyond just exposing foul practices to illustrate the paradoxical severity of the problem at the institutional level. The reason so many PIP claimants are being rejected and thus put at risk is because the assessors who give the verdict would themselves be put at serious financial risk if they choose to do otherwise. To call this system ‘broken’, Marie shows us, is naive. It is working exactly as it is intended to – as a grotesque, self-perpetuating Catch-22.
This appalling absurdity of operations and the depraved inhumanity claimants are subjected to are realised in precise and distressing fidelity in Scrounge. Marie’s position is simple and incontrovertible: reforming the system is insufficient given the utterly Gordian nature of its workings. For any genuine change to come about it has to be completely dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. Scrounge left me angry, yet emboldened to enact the revolution the play calls out for. It is one of the most affecting and eloquent pieces of political theatre that I have read in quite some time.
Where Marie’s first published play, The Play About Theresa May, was a bawdy and hilarious deconstruction of the titular PM, Scrounge is a seething piece of theatre that looks its foes dead in the eye as it mercilessly takes apart their lies. There are no clownish ministerial stand-ins here; this is a gutturally angry work of realism that confirms Marie’s status as a polemicist of exemplary talent.
Scrounge releases on January 10th – order a copy here.
All images via Amie M Marie
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