Concerning the lives of two Nigerian toilet attendants working at the fictional but oh-so-familiar ‘Club Paradise’, Counting Stars is an intriguing, thought provoking and funny production. Replete with neon lights and an operating bar, the opening to the play brings the club world alive for its audience before the show has even started. ‘Gangnam Style’ pumps out of the speakers as the audience assembles on cocktail tables and banked seating – a clever arrangement that adds greatly to the atmosphere. It is rare to watch a show where the entire auditorium is dressed to match the stage. Even the techies have the ‘Club Paradise’ uniforms on, while the ticket attendants on the front door dole out wrist stamps in bouncer blacks. If the bopping of the seventy-plus woman in front of me was anything to go by, this set up is successful in immersing the audience into the world where the action of this production is set.
While Abiodun (Lanre Malaolu) struggles with the idea of working only for tips rather than a wage, upbeat Sophie’s (Estella Daniels) positive outlook on life seems to get her through her late night shifts. The two characters counterpoint each other perfectly. Abiodun’s razor sharp humour is perfectly pulled off by Malaolu and Daniels is flawless as Sophie. The talented duo multirole cockney patron Samantha and Northern club owner Lawrence amongst others as they interact with each other as well as occasionally playing both characters in a given scene by themselves. The complex Lawrence comes down hard on Abiodun, and Abiodun’s ex Amanda is vicious towards Sophie, yet somehow the pair summon great attrition to happily reminisce about their year long relationship. What is striking is how the charming innocence of their romance juxtaposes the seedy and unenviable environment they find themselves in. Abiodun claims that “We are all made up of left-over stars” after being on the receiving end of some casual racism from one of the club’s patrons. It’s a beautiful sentiment and some great writing from Atiha Sen Gupta, who throughout this play showcases the considerable talent which has deservedly landed her a residency at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. If you don’t get a chance to see this production, I’d highly recommend keeping yourself abreast of future work coming out of this east London theatre. I struggled to find fault with any part of this play, and that is a rare thing that should be treasured when found.
However, a great sadness struck me after watching Counting Stars. Its endearing characters leant great charisma to an ultimately poignant message that you should have respect for anyone you come across, be they a black doctor, a white cleaner or an Asian train driver. Unfortunately for some, that lesson is a hard one to learn.
Counting Stars is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until September 17.
Photo: Scott Rylander