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Review: Counter (VAULT Festival)

Review by Raphael Kohn

Seeing the words "interactive theatre" never fails to put a smile on my face. It’s always a pleasure to see theatre being done a bit differently and to feel a part of the action. Seeing Maggie N. Razavi’s new play ‘Counter’, where according to the creators, the audience is ‘invited to participate in the dialogue and decision-making of the characters’, was bound to be a thrill. But would this intriguing concept turn out to be a hit, or would it fall to pieces?

Counter follows an encounter between two unnamed characters, simply called ‘Her’ and ‘Him’ in the program. Set three weeks after he unsuccessfully proposes to her, and she backs off from the whole relationship, they meet at a bar to talk it through. That’s the entire premise, really, with no major twists and turns happening in the story, and the drama mainly evolving out of monologues delivered directly to the audience by the characters, reflecting on moments and aspects of their last ten years together – what made their relationship work, the secrets they never told each other, and the dark truths neither wants to talk about.

With just two characters and minimal lighting and set, Counter is all about its performers. Luckily for Razavi, they are excellent. Max Norman, as ‘Him’, is infuriatingly self-obsessed, a true personification of the nastiest ‘nice guy’, with plenty of dark secrets brimming behind his intense eyes. Opposite him is Rivkah Bunker, who rather steals the show as ‘Her’, balancing the show as a good, gentle counter to Norman’s pompous, entitled Him.

Unfortunately, the performances feel like the only saving grace of Counter. Written as scenes of the two at the bar, followed by monologues in which each character takes it in turns to reflect on their past, their desires and their mistakes, Counter quickly becomes repetitive and boring. I had hoped that the idea of ‘interactive theatre’ would really come to the fore in these monologues, but written as too many rhetorical questions and too few actual questions which audience members could respond to, it felt as if both Her and Him were just taking it in turns to shout into the abyss, revealing ever more cringeworthy, far-fetched disclosures that served only to drag the piece out.

And as for the scenes at the bar, while awkward silences are initially used well to convey the tension between the characters, it quickly becomes just that – awkward. What could have been a tense awkwardness, or a humourous awkwardness, falls into plainly awkward awkwardness, lacking in enough dramatic tension to sustain the audience’s interest.

Norman and Bunker work well with the material they’ve got to bring their characters to life, but there’s simply not much to work with at all. Both Him and Her are flat, one-dimensional characters, both so to blame for the issues in their relationship that they become fairly unlikeable. It’s okay if characters are unlikeable in theatre, there’s no necessity for them to be the most charming, eloquent and wonderful humans imaginable, but in Counter, their unlikeableness became so great that, frankly, I wasn’t all too concerned about which way the story was going to go, because I lacked the emotional investment in either character that could have otherwise been built up by more emotionally interesting characters.

I had really hoped for this to be properly ‘interactive’, with the audience being able to vote on different moments, offer new suggestions, or be a crucial part of the story in any other way. And while parts of the ‘interactive’ aspects of the show worked quite nicely, including a scene in which Bunker fantastically riffed off the audience’s suggestions and made the stage genuinely light up with her performance, much of it was not interactive at all. In fact, we were asked to put our hands up to vote at one crucial moment of the show, which the audience immediately voted practically unanimously on, which was then promptly ignored by the actors, who disobeyed the audience and performed the ending that nobody actually voted for. Quite why we were asked to vote at all is beyond me really, if our vote didn’t even count, but I would hope that, if Counter continues its theatrical life in a new form, this could be the subject of substantial reconsideration.

It's not exactly that I didn’t enjoy this show, but I felt a touch let down by the writing and direction that simply didn’t seem to go anywhere. Razavi is clearly a creative mind, and with more time can make a great show out of her concept, and both Norman and Bunker are brilliant performers who can really make the most of their talents, but I left Counter feeling a touch disappointed and ignored. I hope the creatives can vote to improve it because I really think it has unrealised potential that could be a much greater success.


Counter has now finished its run at VAULT festival. The festival continues throughout March. See for all of the listings



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