September 2 2016
New play is timely and picks at scabs that society has sadly rediscovered in an all too troubling way…
MOST folks would agree that racial tensions have been exacerbated since the vote to Leave the European Union.
For whatever reason, some people at the edges think that the vote has given them licence to vent their feelings towards anyone they regard as not ‘pure English’ and living in England. If you speak another language that can be enough to ignite their fury.
It is in many ways a shocking and worrying state of affairs, but it also needs to be put in context – racism continues to persist in dark corners of our land (metaphorically) and that many are and remain decent, and are just as shocked and upset as the rest of us – on the receiving end.
It’s against this background that a play like Atiha Sen Gupta’s “Counting Stars” – currently playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, has much to say to us.
Critically set in a nightclub in Woolwich, South East London, it is about two amiable black toilet attendants who chronicle the comings and goings of their ‘clients’.
Sophie looks after the women’s; Abiodun Obayomi – the men’s – and there is a good deal of mirth at the beginning when Abiodun tries to teach Lawrence, the white club owner, how to pronounce his surname properly. That it never happens and Lawrence ends up calling him ‘Obama’ is an indication of where things are headed from the outset.
The toilet attendants are both Nigerian immigrants and aspirational – Sophie is more entrepreneurial and enjoys her work: she makes the very most of it. Abiodun, a physics graduate, does not and hates having to sing a ridiculous and moronic ditty about ‘pussy’ and ‘poonani’ in a bid to get punters to flash the cash (it’s how the two make ends meet) for the after shave and other accoutrements to attract the opposite sex.
This is a two-hander play with Estrella Daniels and Lawrence Malaolu playing all the characters – of which there are six in all.
They use accents and mannerisms to some degree – Malaolu inflecting a more physical energy into these other parts, Daniels a finer more verbal dexterity perhaps, but at times, especially at the beginning it’s hard to delineate the ethnicity of the other characters.
You rather lose your way a little in these other parts – and funds permitting, you can’t help thinking it would have been better to have actors playing them and fleshing out them out a little more.
It would definitely have added to the tension and spice – one of the great things drama can do, is give voice to feelings that lie beneath the surface and that are not part of any media narrative (largely because they are too raw and foreboding). You know those feelings exist, you can feel them, sometimes hear them (if you’re unlucky enough).
Some would say the right wing press does do that job, but if often articulates the sentiment and sanitizes (legitimises in some eyes) the underlying prejudice or fears (which are the precursors for violence often).
Sen Gupta (pictured lower) does not shy away from this – she lays it out thick, heavy and pulsating – but it all comes too much at the end.
The relevance of Woolwich too is also only really apparent at the end.
This play has been through readings and development – the central characters are well formed, believable, likeable, the others less so…obviously.
Sen Gupta has a good ear and eye for the underlying dynamics that fuel and foment racial tension and thus, “Counting Stars” might benefit from fleshing out the peripheral characters a bit more, embodying them with real actors perhaps, and making it longer (it’s only about an hour at present).
The markers for the final segment are not laid out in petty slights and off the cuff remarks or ‘banter’ enough from the start.
Having said all that, Sen Gupta’s play has a strong element of enjoyment and humour – especially in the romance that unfolds and good to see those who don’t have any voice (or much of one) – those nightclub toilet attendants, being given one.
Sen Gupta’s writing comes from a good place and a strong social conscience, but her real strength lies in telling it like it is for those at the bottom who never really have an audience.
ACV rating: *** (out of five)
‘Counting Stars’ until Sept 17 – Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN