Review: Counting Stars, The Albany

Sophie (Rebecca Omogbehin) and Abiodun (Joseph Rowe) never directly interact, confined as they are to their separate nightclub toilets. But there is a natural partnership between them, a deep-rooted affection that makes for a set of endearing conversations in Counting Stars.

The whole production has a light-hearted tone, a gentle comedy that instils empathy on both the workers, before it slowly descends into the nightmare they both wished never to have faced. The build-up is there, but the final climactic moment is lacking in this otherwise affable duologue of characters trying to get by in the world.

Emily Marshall directs Atiha Sen Gupta’s Counting Stars as part of the Stomping Ground Festival, a Young Director’s training programme set up by StoneCrabs Theatre Company. The central characters both get jobs in a nightclub, one thankful to be in work, whilst the other is dreaming of getting away and making more of his life.

Marshall capitalises on the day to day squabbles between both for good comic effect, as well as their separate interactions with their inebriated and at times violent clients. The trick here is in the subtleties that each actor incorporates to demarcate those they are describing. For Sophie (Omogbehin), it’s making each client feel like a superstar – gossip, astrological advice, maybe a bit of counselling, and of course a spritz of White Diamonds, the ultimate perfume in any collection. Omogbehin briefly pauses before completely incorporating these partygoers into her accent; instantly we are taken up by the positivity and camaraderie emanating from the female toilets.

Abiodun (Rowe), on the other hand, gets the less salubrious end of the spectrum, and uses his physicality to categorise his characters. Club owner Lawrence is a camp Scouser with flailing hands; club regular Bird Man (not his real name) puffs out his chest and struts, preening like a peacock as if he owns the place. Rowe has the trickier role and at times drops character when quickly batting back and forth between the personalities. But equally, Rowe is responsible for the tension and the build-up that mounts towards that fateful end.

Marshall has a keen eye for background and text, picking up on the cues in Gupta’s script and capitalising for full effect. The audience are on board from the start. The comedy aspects of the show are well emphasised while serious consequences are drip-fed in. These could have more emphasis – a drop and run tactic whereby they are overly stated before instantly reverting to bubbly conversation about superficial topics – which would help add pace and impact to the finale.

The ending ultimately lacks any lasting effect; Marshall seems to have run out of steam and concept by the time it is realised. The background noise is abruptly cut; the blocking doesn’t seem to indicate urgency or shock, as both characters continue to remain confined to their sides of the stage despite the story finally bringing them together.

Counting Stars is a clever choice for a festival, riding on the coattails of success it had in 2016 at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Marshall has a clear-cut vision in her work, which when consistently followed through to its end will produce some impactful future theatre.

Counting Stars played The Albany as part of Stomping Ground Festival on 15 March. For more festival information, see thealbany.org.uk.

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