Could the hidden struggles of Britain’s toilet attendants spark powerful change?

A play inspired by a whole night in a nightclub’s toilets, conjuring up the overwhelming scent of Britney and Joop! – it sounds unlikely. But that’s what playwright Atiha Sen Gupta is setting out to do in her new play Counting Stars.

Gupta laughs at the suggestion these are places she frequents often. But as a student, a night out in Coventry found her spending several hours chatting to a toilet attendant about their experience. Like most of us, Gupta was shocked to learn that her companion worked for no money and had to pay for any ‘luxury’ goods, such as fragrances and chewing gum herself. The only income comes from tips punters give.

“She was Nigerian and had been racially abused by a white punter before being defended by a mixed race passer-by,” Gupta explains. “They’re always Nigerian and never, say Chinese, Ghanaian or British. This is when I clocked and became aware of the phenomenon.”

A lot of people probably don’t even contemplate this on a night out and take them for granted as part of the background.

Gupta agrees. “My friends complain about them, saying they’re so annoying and won’t leave us to wash our hands in peace, but these people are really suffering and not out to get us. They have no power.”

It’s a very profound point. Who really has the power? Is it ever possible for the so-called little people to reclaim it?

The choice to set Counting Stars in Woolwich was a careful one.

“It was a deliberate choice,” says Gupta. “I was struck by Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. The image of Michael Adebolajo with blood on his hands, talking to the camera was really shocking, dramatic and, I suppose, theatrical.”

Gupta finds much relevance for the play now with the leading up to and event of Britain leaving the European Union.

“A Polish guy was killed recently, apparently because he was overheard speaking in his native language,” she says.

There’s a contrast in the hate-fuelled culture that emerged during the Brexit debate, and its usefulness in capturing people’s attention and getting them talking about issues that matter.

“The terrible thing about being in theatre is that you never switch off,” says Gupta. “You’re constantly analysing and seeing great characters and dialogue. It’s a terrible paradox of your own, personal political feelings and appreciation of events theatrically.”

The two characters in the play, Sophie and Abiodun are vastly different, yet manage to find a connection that transcends the wall separating the men and women’s loos in the ironically named, Club Paradise. Sophie is a supreme optimist that doesn’t view her position as exploitation but rather, a joy and a blessing. In contrast, Abiodun sees the entire situation as a form of slavery. They are treated differently by those around them, especially the club manager who flirts with a flatters Sophie but abashes Abiodun, whittling him down, and using his race as a way to drum up business. It’s perhaps an easy preconception to see Sophie as deluded, rather than buoyant.

“Naturally, she is not a negative person but is aware of her situation and the way to deal with it is to smile and be upbeat. She is definitely not deluded. She knows what’s going on and understands it. This is a stepping stone for her,” says Gupta.

So a bridge to better things? “Yes, whereas Abiodun is totally pissed off and just wants to get out of there.”

It’s exciting to hear characters described so colourfully and eloquently and it feels as though there is simply no effort involved when it comes to falling in love with Sophie, Abiodun and their story. The rich diversity of Stratford’s Theatre Royal couldn’t have been a bigger embrace for the play. The staging is one we are seeing increasingly, where the barrier between audience and drama is broken down. What sort of reaction has Counting Stars received?

“In basic terms and in Edinburgh last year, we had people laughing, crying and retching,” says Gupta. “At the beginning, one of the characters has a job interview and gives his name to the audience. In any other theatre, there would be silence, but in Stratford on the first night, there was a call back and people started to sing his name back to him. This was so beautiful and I have never seen that before. There was a real sense of engaging with him.”

If anything were to disturb those holding the power over the little people, an electric moment like this could be it. Sometimes it’s a collective having someone’s back and in other instances, one individual causing a revolution. Gupta’s writing remains consistently political and it is clear from both this and speaking to her that she is passionate about the need for change.

“Muhammad Bouazizi from Tunisia – this guy set himself on fire and in turn the whole region. One small man’s act created – sparked it. That’s power. That’s change,” she says.

It looks likely we’ll be expecting more of the same from the writer’s future projects. Is Counting Stars her most provocative to date? It depends who you ask. The audience’s reaction speaks volumes about the very real characters they are practically on stage with. Pieces like this are forcing us to acknowledge the so-called little people and illustrating that we’ve a scary amount of power. Let’s never underestimate our ability to spark change if we really want it.

Counting Stars is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until September 17.