“I had to walk into a toilet to find the love of my life.”
With humour, intelligence, and a gut-punch of injustice playwright Atiha Sen Gupta writes a deeply affecting play, Counting Stars, about a young Nigerian couple and their dream for a life together in the UK.
Inside the toilets of a nightclub in Woolwich, Sophie (Bunmi Mojekwu) and Abiodun (Joe Shire) are Nigerian immigrants who both work as attendants for no wage. They subsist on tips alone. This is where they met and soon they will celebrate their one year anniversary. Sophie is cheery, optimistic, and obsessed with horoscopes and Cosmo. She sees herself as a “PA to the stars” and she pampers her run-of-the-mill customers like they are celebrities. Abiodun has a degree in physics. He is charming, smart, and increasingly frustrated with how they are being treated by management. He sees this all as “class warfare”.
Things may be challenging for this couple, but when the men’s and women’s toilet doors open at the same time and they catch a glimpse of each other, their hopes are renewed and it seems like everything will work out just fine.
Sen Gupta builds these parallel monologues into a funny, colorful, and heartbreaking portrait of immigrant life. The manager, Lawrence, flirts with Sophie and flatters her. Lawrence constantly criticizes Abiodun and questions why Abiodun doesn’t smile more, clean the toilets, or keep his patrons entertained. Lawrence forces Abiodun to sing an appalling song (and engage in minstrelsy) to try and drum up business for squirts of cologne.
Mojekwu and Shire perform all the characters in the story. They radiate love and affection as Sophie and Abiodun. But as distinctly as they can shine this devotion on one another, they can change the timbre of the scene as they play the characters interfering with the couple’s happiness. Sophie rages with jealousy at Abiodun’s ex, Amanda (also played by Mojekwu) who works in the club and is not really over their break-up. Abiodun struggles to keep an unruly and drunk patron he’s dubbed Bird of Prey (also played by Shire) in line.
As Sophie and Abiodun count down until the end of their shift, tensions in the club on Valentine’s Day start to rise. Sen Gupta gently folds in real-life events that give the play a political gloss without forcing the narrative to bear more than it can. The laughs keep coming in this play even as they become sickeningly dark. And although the conclusion feels inevitable the experience of getting there is so well-crafted you won’t mind.
Counting Stars offers a view of a world from the perspective of non-white immigrants in the UK. After two weeks of non-stop theatre in Edinburgh, this was the first glimpse I’ve seen of that on stage.