Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London (***)
Success has come early to young playwright Atiha Sen Gupta whose What Fatima Did, written at 21, was nominated for Most Promising Playwright by the Evening Standard and John Whiting awards.
Her latest, Counting Stars, was equally welcomed at Edinburgh Fringe 2015. Stratford’s Theatre Royal have gone to enormous trouble to recreate the right kind of funky atmosphere for this two-hander, set in the toilets of the ironically named Paradise club which like Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things exposes the lives behind those servicing our leisure industries.
Converting the backstage area into a veritable nightclub proves the easy bit. What proves more problematic is transmitting the sense and heart of Sen Gupta’s immigrant tale-for-today despite the appeal of Estella Daniels’ Sophie – euphemistically dubbed `entrepreneuress’ by her mean-fisted boss, Lawrence – and Lanre Malaolu’s fresh-faced, smiley Abiodun.
Sophie and Abiodun, two Nigerians, have fallen in love. They’ve been together a year and are hoping to celebrate their anniversary when they finish their Valentine’s Night shift. Sophie is mad for horoscopes, lives by their predictions; Abiodun, more realistically sees their life in terms of `class war’. Neither is prepared for what follows, a shocking, sadly all too possible scenario of immigrant-inspired racist violence.
But leading up to the act, Sen Gupta’s dialogue, whilst sweetly capturing Sophie’s innocent dreams and Abiodun’s plans for a better life – they are not being paid a wage having to rely on tips from clients for selling perfumes and toilet sprays – is reliant precisely on the attractions of inconsequentiality. You have to hear the detail, as it were, to smell the coffee. This proves a stumbling block for all Daniels’ and Malaolu’s versatility in playing not just Sophie and Abiodun but clients and boss.
I suspect too, that given a more varied tone in the production, we’d have received a deeper, more complex sense of these characters. Sen Gupta’s text is capable of far greater implication than it gets a chance to show here. Great shame because there’s no doubt of Counting Stars topicality or potential. And the talents of both Daniels and Malaolu.
Counting Stars runs at Theatre Royal, Stratford East to Sept 17, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2016