We’ve all seen them on drunken nights out, the men and women camped out in the toilets surrounded by an Aladdin’s cave of toiletries and confectionery.
You might even have stopped to take a handtowel, spritz on perfume or drop a coin, while wondering how someone ends up in such a job.
Playwright Atiha Sen Gupta knows.
“At Warwick university I went clubbing one night and went to the toilet and didn’t come out for two hours,” said the 28-year-old.
“I remember this woman was in among all these colourful perfumes, almost like a den. Magical is the wrong word but there was something different.
“We got talking and she was Nigerian and told me about her life which was fascinating.”
The incident initially became the inspiration for a 10-minute love story about two attendants divided by a toilet wall. But five years later Atiha has developed it into full-length play, Counting Stars , for the new season at Theatre Royal Stratford East where she has just been appointed writer in residence.
The Kilburn resident said: “I felt really honoured [to become writer-in-residence]. It has re-energised me.
“I don’t know how the [theatre management] have done it but they have broken down all the barriers that normally make people not want to go in to the theatre for the first time and have a really diverse audience.”
The lengthier version of her play has taken a darker turn and delves deeper into the underbelly of the nightclub world in Woolwich with the audience siting in among the action.
“I didn’t realise until I spoke to that woman, but they are not paid a wage by the management,” said Atiha, who works part-time at Company of Angels theatre in Bermondsey. “They are surviving on tips – and all of those products they have to pay for themselves.
“I can’t remember her name now but she was telling me about being racially abused by a young, drunk white woman and a mixed-race woman standing up for her and how she was touched by it.
“The fact she had to put up with that on top of her terrible economic situation, I thought was a really toxic combination.”
Cheryl Tweedy (now Cole) was famously fined for assaulting a toilet attendant Sophie Amogbokpa in a Guildford nightclub in 2003 after arguing over payment for a lollipop. And during her research Atiha found these mostly immigrant Nigerian toilet attendants are a source of irritation for many people.
“They are on the margins and a footnote of history,” said the Atiha. “They are not part of the big story. I thought it would be interesting to subvert that and put them on the main stage, give them a platform.
“It’s a desperate job. For me it is so demeaning and colonial having a black person in the toilet to serve your needs. It takes dignity away from the worker.”
The title is a reference to her character’s shared interest in the stars. Female attendant Sophie is an optimistic horoscope obsessive who sees herself as a PA to celebrities and pampers her customers like they are celebrities. Charming but frustrated Abiodun has a degree in physics and sees herself a fighter in a class war.
Someone else also shares their love of the celestial.
“I’m fascinated by stars,” said Atiha and says that I, a Scorpio, am “dangerous” but should get on well with her, a Cancer.
“I love horoscopes. I know you can’t filter seven billion people in to 12 categories but I will do that.”
Strange then that on the whole her work is about uncovering unique details about unknown sectors of society.
Her next play is based on the lives of the Tamal Tigers, inspired be her father’s Sri Lankan heritage. Race and immigration are themes in most of her work. Her first play What Fatima Did, published when she was 21, hinges on a young woman’s decision over whether to adopt the head-covering Muslim hijab while her follow-up Red State dealt with police racism.
“I’m British Asian, my mum is Indian and my dad Sri Lankan. Even though I’m British and English is my first language I’m constantly asked ‘where are you from?’. When I tell them Kilburn they say ‘no, where are you really from’.
“So even though I’m not, I feel very much like an immigrant and their stories are close to my heart,” she said.
Atiha is a member of Brent Anti Racism Campaign who has previously worked as a disability rights campaigner.
When asked what she thinks of our new Prime Minister Theresa May the Labour supporter said: “How long have you got? Everyone is going on about how she’s a woman but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a step forward for feminism. I’m not a fan.
“As a writer I try to have my word as my bond and be as honest as possible. But I don’t think she is an honest politician.”
Friday, August 26- September 17, 4pm and 8pm, from £12, Theatre Royal Stratford East
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