FringeReview UK 2016
Directed by Pooja Ghai for Stratford East, designed with simple panache by Diego Pitarch and starring Estella Daniels and Lanre Malaolu, Atiha Sen Gupta’s expansion of her short play Toilet arrives from last year’s Edinburgh debut, making this her second since her debut breakthrough What Fatima Did.
Atiha Sen Gupta’s expansion of her short play Toilet arrives from last year’s Edinburgh debut directed here like a slowly-wound clock by Pooja Ghai for Stratford East, designed with simple panache by Diego Pitarch and starring Estella Daniels and Lanre Malaolu. We’re already in a club. It starts when you have your hand stamped, are offered drinks, and perch bonily on club seats to banging music.
Sophie reads the stars, Abiodun studied them for his degree in astrophysics. They’re both exploited Nigerian immigrants working in Club Paradise’s toilets: where people go to vomit or freshen up. The only money the two workers make is their sales from sprays. It’s Valentine night and their anniversary: they dream of getting away early. Abiodun has no idea how early Sophie’s secured their release. She’s the entrepreneur, the optimistic fixer. Abiodun counts the degrees of class war including Sophie’s not knowing what the minimum wage is.
Where Sophie claims her name is Nigerian, Abiodun reluctantly consents to let his patronymic stand as Obama. He’s self-aware, stubborn on occasion (a Taurus trait says Sophie) and cleans up vomit whilst refusing to let his inner dignity go. Abiodun‘s boss forces him to sing demeaning doggerel and others film him: ‘no spray/no lay, no splash/no gash.’
Mimicking the voices of others in their bifurcated set the couple set out their lives antiphonally to the audience sitting on bar stools as if watching garish cabaret. The wall between’s imaginary and they almost share the sprays and condoms they sell to the clubbed-out in their respective neon-gendered halves.
For warm, well-adjusted Sophie’s it’s the luckless Samantha she befriends and whom she even lends money to; and encourages to find someone new after dumping her violent ex David, which she does instantly. David turns out predatory and dangerous. It’s him Abiodun identifies as Bird of Prey or BOP, having sex three times with different women in cubicles during the course of the evening. Abiodun’s ex is also their landlady, demanding more. The Liverpudlian club owner pushes Abiodun cheerfully to the point of rebellion though sweet-talks Sophie.
The tension builds slowly, flickering through great humour from both main protagonists with Malaolu etching the northern manager as much as he does the racist local David. Daniels conveys the hapless Samantha and brush with the boss. It’s like having two character stand-ups paced more leisurely. This all changes in the last ten minutes when David’s menace, superbly conveyed, becomes something other and the couple separated like Pyramus and Thisbe in a low-key comedy finally physically unite in very different territory.
Gupta’s not too likely to pay the penalty for her spectacular 2009 debut aged twenty-one in What Fatima Did. This is her third full-length, and limited by expanding an earlier sketch. Nevertheless, this is a clear-headed warm-hearted play packing much story-telling into its sixty-five minutes, though it takes its time. The structure leaves it deliberately two-dimensional: the antiphonal intercutting makes it an attractive format like Faith Healer wowing on VHF. Most of all it’s a convincing portrayal of exploited lovers in Woolwich now. I’m almost convinced, partly since the acting’s superb, characterisation both in writing and execution viscerally convincing and the effect and climax revelatory.