Counting Stars – Review

Estella Daniels & Lanre Malaolu in Counting Stars. Images Scott Rylander.
Estella Daniels & Lanre Malaolu in Counting Stars. Images Scott Rylander.

Intolerance and temper. They sound like they could be the names of celebrity scents sold from the spritz bar in the ladies at the Paradise Club for £1 a shot.

Instead they are an incendiary cocktail which can provoke senseless and random acts of violence that flare in a moment.

We’re always reading in the national press about innocent victims being killed simply for looking the wrong way, nudging a pint out of a man’s hand, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lately, following terrorist atrocities around the world, Muslims are being targeted in a wave a hatred directed at the innocent who are being tarnished with the guilt of others.

Counting Stars, which opened this week at Theatre Royal Stratford East, has come a long way since it was first performed as a 10 minute conversation piece in 2012.

Writer Atiha Sen Gupta, has expanded and updated the story by including a vital new thread running through the play, the slaughter of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Yet, even without this Counting Stars couldn’t be more topical.

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The aftermath of that atrocity, and others, has been occasional outbreaks of violence against Muslims. Whole neighbourhoods and communities live in fear, terrified of the next flashpoint, the next tragedy.

Counting Stars is funny, poignant, deeply moving and thought-provoking play with compelling performances from its cast of two, Estella Daniels as the bright and bubbly Sophie and Lanre Malaolu, playing physics graduate turned toilet attendant, Abiodun.

The Studio at Stratford East has been transformed into The Paradise Club. There’s a bar serving arrivals with cocktails, and punters – that’s the audience – are stamped with a palm tree on entering. The music playing ahead of the show is damn good too. It’s my kind of club.

But the play takes place in somewhere far from paradise. We’re in the bogs, the ladies and the gents, where, shockingly, Sophie and Abi, work long hours on zero wages and must rely on gratuities from those spending a penny.

The pair rarely speak to each other and instead direct their dialogue, and that of the club’s characters which they create, towards the audience who are sitting around small tables.

Sophie and Abi are both Nigerian and are grateful to be working. She mans her table in the ladies, dispensing lollipops, makeup, perfume and a shoulder to cry on for the regulars.

On Abi’s side of the lavatories he’s dishing out condoms, paper towels and David Beckham scent but finds it hard to come to terms with the job.

“Clearing up someone else’s vomit isn’t my idea of fun,” he laments, retching at the smell.

They met a year ago and have been a couple ever since. Sophie is full of life, a wide smile on her face, and ever optimistic. Abi dreads tonight. It’s Valentine’s Night and couples will be making up and breaking up, getting drunk, and crying into their cups.

Yet it only takes a second, one belligerent comment, and this heartwarming and endearing story, played out in the shitty end of London’s nightclub culture, turns to tragedy.

It’s a beautiful and powerfully told story, and you’ll find yourself falling in love with this hardworking couple who have come to England to find happiness. “I had to work in a toilet to find the love of my life,” beams Sophie.

And you’ll stifle a little sob too for their shocking treatment at the hands of their boss, Lawrence, who thinks he’s doing them a big favour by giving them a job, and Amanda, their landlady, who is maliciously upping their rent.

Counting Stars runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until September 17.

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