REVIEW: COUNTING STARS (Theatre Royal Stratford East) ★★★★

Estella Daniels (Sophie) and Lanre Malaolu (Abiodun) Credit Scott Rylander (4)

Counting Stars is a single act play, lasting sixty five minutes in which two actors play all the parts. Each actor plays one principle character and two supplementary characters who are less central, but still important to the story. The actors talk directly to the audience and not to each other throughout, at least not until the very last scene.

The whole play takes part in a single room representing two adjacent toilets in a South London nightclub, Club Paradise. In one toilet is Abiodun a pleasant, funny, black Nigerian man who works in the gentlemen’s toilets, selling odds and ends of toiletries, chewing gum and condoms and also grudgingly cleaning up when necessary. Sophie, a black Nigerian lady and loving girlfriend of Abiodun, sells lollipops (displayed in a revolving stand), female perfumes and make-up in the adjacent ladies toilets.

Abiodun and Sophie, in turn, tell the story of what is happening while each is also playing the two other characters involved in their stories. Two actors, six characters.

Sophie’s life in the nightclub is relatively comfortable and she is a friendly ear who listens to the girl customers’ troubles and even offers advice to those who she befriends. She is proud of the range of perfumes she offers and is generally content.

Abiodun is less content with his lot, his customers tend to be friendly when sober, aggressive when drunk, young South London thugs. He is tired of regularly cleaning up drunk customers’ sick and is unhappy that both Sophie and he earn below the minimum wage. The club owner is unsympathetic to Abiodun’s requests for a wage increase and continues to make excuses for exploiting him and belittles him by calling him Obama, professing not to be able to remember his real name.

Obiodun and Sophie’s greatest work-time pleasure is when by chance, both toilet doors are open simultaneously and they can, for a brief instant, see each other and Abiodun can give her a surreptitious wink which she loves. They are a pleasant, funny and loving young couple.

They, the two main characters, live together and love each other. They have just reached the one year landmark and Sophie is planning a nice evening with an early finish at work followed by Abiodun’s favourite meal and a night of love, however fate determines otherwise.

This comedic tragic story is beautifully written by the vastly experienced Atiha Sen Gupta. It is very funny but manages to highlight the racist problems that immigrants can face in their new homeland. It should be a must see for immigrants contemplating a move to Britain and a must see for British people who have a negative view of, particularly African, immigrants.

The acting by Estella Daniels as Sophie (and Amanda and Samantha) and Lanre Malaolu as Abiodun (and Lawrence and BOP or Bird Of Pray) is excellent. Both actors are funny, warm and convincing, while Lanre Malaolu can, when he takes on the mantle of an intoxicated BOP, also become seriously threatening.

Estella Daniels is vastly experienced in the theatre at the Young Vic, Theatre Royal Haymarket etc. On television she has appeared in Death in Paradise, Ashes to Ashes and many more excellent programmes.

Lanre Malaolu’s theatre credits include parts in plays at The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Almeida, the Globe and many more. His television appearances include Holby City, The Bill and The Armstrong and Miller Show. He has also appeared in a number of films and radio programs.

The stage comprises a simple counter top representing the two toilets. The rest of the auditorium is a functioning nightclub from where the audience can watch the play. It is an informal atmosphere where you can sit in comfort and have a relaxing drink. The staff are excellent and very friendly.

Reviewed by Graham Archer
Photo: Scott Rylander

Counting Stars plays at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 17th September 2016 and is highly recommended