For all the talk of 'underground clubs', there actually exists a profession in most late-night venues that, often, is literally underground. Stumble down the beer-soaked stairs and woozily push open the toilet door in your favourite dive, and you'll probably find a toilet attendant, dolefully reeling off a list of catchphrases as he douses your grubby hands with a good squirt of Carex as you try and understand exactly why your eyes look so huge in the mirror. Occasionally you might even be generous enough to slide a clammy pound coin from your hand into his in return for a quick splash of Beckham Intimately Beckham. That quid can make a legitimately big difference because, shockingly, it's their only revenue stream.
I found this out when I spoke to Atiha Sen Gupta, a London-based playwright who has been heralded in recent years for her modern, questioning dramas, including the critically acclaimed What Fatima Did. Her new play, Counting Stars, which is showing at the Stratford East, is a glance at the rarely looked at life of the nightclub toilet attendant. Much of the best drama highlights people that the media keeps us in the dark about; and that certainly applies to the hidden nightclub economy that toilet attendants are part-of. I spoke to Atiha to ask her about society's perception of them, how it has changed due to Brexit, and about how her immersive theatre is being used to make us see that we are complicit in their treatment.
THUMP: What's the narrative of the play?
Aitha Sen Gupta: Counting Stars tells the story of two Nigerian toilet attendants who fall in love in post-Brexit Woolwich. They are united by love but divided by a toilet wall. They created their relationship outside the club after having met in the club, and on the night of the play they are celebrating their first anniversary.
Why did you choose toilet attendants as the protagonists of the play? Why did you want to explore the underground world of nightclubs?
Well, I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's the underground nature of it—they are definitely forgotten people. I have spoken to so many people about this play—some are sympathetic—but others were like "I'm so sick of them," or "I can wash my hands by myself." There was not hatred but there was irritation and indifference. Dramatically, I am always interested in people who don't seem to count but should matter. I guess that was the political thing behind it. On a personal level at uni once when I was clubbing, I disappeared to the toilet thinking I'd spend five minutes in there but I ended up spending the whole night there, talking to a woman working inside. I vividly remember her amongst all these perfumes and colourful bottles. She told me about all these amazing and terrifying stories—she was racially abused by one white customer and a mixed-race customer stood-up for her as she felt a sense of solidarity. I was aware of the phenomenon of clubs having Nigerian attendants, but that was the first time I'd marked it. I was also shocked to find they aren't paid a wage. Hardly anyone gives a tip so I don't know how they survive, as it's not lucrative at all.
And it becomes a difficult relationship as they have to pressurise people to give them money, leading to some of the animosity.
Exactly, they're not indifferent to customers but are desperate for money. Another thing that shocked me is that they have to pay for the perfumes and sprays themselves. You'd think at least the management would pay for that. It's a situation of pure exploitation. It sounds tacky, but I left the toilet but the story didn't leave me. It stuck in my head and fermented and I felt compelled to write this story. There was a short play competition around the theme of love so I wrote a ten minute piece set in a nightclub toilet about a couple that fell in love, and from the last five years I've taken it from there.
Part of the play is that you made it into an immersive experience to make it feel like a nightclub. Why did you choose to do that? What kind of effect does it have in terms of integrating them into setting?
That's a really good question. I wish I could take credit for the idea but it was actually the director and the designer Diego who worked together to create an immersive experience. It's brilliant because Stratford East has the deepest space in London; there are red velvet seats and it's quite fancy and Victorian. When they first told me about the main stage I thought it wouldn't work but they were so clever as they brought an iron curtain down and cut-off the auditorium and the audience is sitting on the stage itself watching the action unfold.
The stage is like a nightclub with barstools and tables. There's a fully-stocked bar on stage, and you have to go round to enter the theatre with queues of people in the side-entrance and get your wrist stamped by bouncers. That's the exciting part and people have bought into it. In terms of drama it you become complicit.
Something you touched-upon briefly earlier—the fact that it comes post-Brexit—how do you feel that'll have an influence on these peoples' occupations?
It's really complicated. I was speaking to someone recently after the play; they were saying in Spain that their black friend wasn't allowed in the club because he was black, and the person they were with was obviously protesting against this but they were used to it. The irony with that is the fact that they would've been playing music inside by black artists, showing how culture is convoluted.
Brexit in itself isn't dangerous but the sentiment behind it is. The E.U. wasn't a democratic institution, but it's the way it's framed. If Brexit was framed in progressive, left-wing terms I wouldn't have a problem. But it was based on misinformation and lies, and there was a lot of xenophobia. It's dangerous for all minorities—although the rhetoric focused on Eastern Europeans—it quickly shifted also to people of colour. It became a racialized thing, and it's not good for toilet attendants or any ethnic minorities.
Counting Stars by Atiha Sen Gupta plays at the Stratford East until the 17th of September. Head here for tickets and information.