“How much are you worth?”
Hand on heart, how many British nightclub attendants have you ever seen? You know, the ones you usually try and avoid eye contact with in the toilets, with their trays of perfume and lollipops and a too-small pile of tips. Difficult as it may be to test, I’d argue that its precisely the kind of job that most would turn their nose up at, hence immigrant labour being sourced and exploited. And that is what is at the heart of Atiha Sen Gupta’s scorching play Counting Stars, currently at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Tucked into a backstage area, Diego Pitarch’s design places us right in the seat of the action, in the toilets of the Club Paradise in Woolwich, where Sophie and Abiodun are working a shift, hoping to later celebrate their one-year anniversary. Both Nigerian immigrants, they work a different cleaning job by day and return to Paradise each night, even if shockingly, they are paid absolutely nothing – their only money comes from those tips. See what I mean about being exploited.
It’s something I still can’t get out of my head, the revelations (based on cold, hard truth) from Sen Gupta’s writing educate, elucidate, excoriate, as they force us to meet the gaze of this couple, and feel a little something of their experience. The frustration of having an African physics degree that ultimately means nothing here, the iniquitous racism whether casual or overt and as the hour of the play coils us to a tense ending, being the recipient of increasingly vicious (and mis-directed) hate speech.
Pooja Ghai’s production is excellently cast in both Estella Daniels and Lanre Malaolu, giving us real insight into their long-suffering lives and sweetly enduring love, the testament of their collective spirit a gorgeous way to characterise the invaluable contribution made to society by precisely the very people that Brexiters would throw out. They both play a number of other characters as well, cleverly varying the tone, making Counting Stars a powerful watch and as close to a state of the nation – right here, right now – play as you could imagine.