Theatre Review: ‘Counting Stars’ by Atiha Sen Gupta @ The Theatre Royal Stratford East
Nigerian immigrants Abiodun (Lanre Malaolu) and Sophie (Estelle Daniels) are a chalk’n’cheese couple working as lavatory attendants at Paradise, a South London nightclub. It’s Valentine’s Day, one of the most hectic nights of the year. It also happens to be Sophie and Abiodun’s first anniversary. Sophie has a special surprise planned to celebrate. In the meantime, she and Abiodun steal glances across the corridor as the toilet doors swing open and take it in turns to speak about the highs and many lows of the job. Eternally cheerful, horoscope-obsessed Sophie focuses on the perks whilst world-weary Abiodun resents the exploitation and humiliation that comes with the role. No formal payment, just all that can be made in tips.
Each has numerous stories about life in Paradise. Favourite customers (Sophie), bullish regulars (Abiodun), unsympathetic bosses and an ex-girlfriend who, rather awkwardly, is not only a colleague but the couple’s occasionally vengeful landlady.
Even in jest the frustrations bubble to the surface. These hard-up, one-time graduates are forced by their insecure immigration status to routinely suffer the contempt or indifference of others.
Daniels and Malaolu deliver Atiha Sen Gupta’s affecting two-hander ‘Counting Stars’ with panache; smoothly switching between accents and personas, often mid-sentence. There’s an admirable authenticity to the way Bengali-British Gupta handles Yoruba slang. Already compelled by the performances, Diego Pitarch’s replica bar/club set design further puts the audience at the heart of the action.
Perhaps the play’s greatest success is the convincing, cliché-eschewing romance between Abiodun and Sophie. The two never have a direct conversation throughout the piece, emphasising the isolation of the job. In their individual way, each strives to overcome the bleak circumstances. Despite her irritating, Panglossian optimism and his (more understandable) grumpiness, you only wish these star-crossed lovebirds a brighter tomorrow, far away from the vagaries of unskilled and underpaid labour. But eventually, you can’t ignore the presentiment that there will be tears before closing time.
Written by Atiha Sen Gupta
Directed by Pooja Ghai
Set Design: Diego Pitarch
Lighting: Laura Curd
Estella Daniels – Sophie
Lanre Malaolu – Abiodun
‘Counting Stars’ plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17 September 2016