State of the Arts

The play putting women’s toilets at centre stage

Travis Alabanza’s 'Overflow’ focuses on a key battleground in the fight for trans rights, celebrating it as a place of solidarity. It’s a joy, says Micha Frazer-Carroll

Friday 22 January 2021 08:50 GMT
Reece Lyons in 'Overflow’ at the Bush theatre
Reece Lyons in 'Overflow’ at the Bush theatre (Photo Sharron Wallace)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The ability to pee in peace has become a political issue. As broadsheet commentators use their column inches to stir up moral panic around trans people using public toilets, trans and gender-non-conforming people face the very real threat of harassment and violence in bathrooms on a day-to-day basis. Such was the inspiration for the setting of writer and performance artist Travis Alabanza’s new play, Overflow, which explores friendship, feminism and trans solidarity all from the inside of a locked club toilet.

The play made a socially distanced debut at the Bush Theatre in December, before Tier 4 restrictions were announced – but this week, it returned for a fantastic online performance, led by Reece Lyons.

Lyons plays Rosie, the protagonist of the one-woman show, with such confidence that I found it hard to believe that this is her first major role in a stage production – and that the monologue she delivers was rehearsed over Zoom. Her podium is a circular, white tiled bathroom, accented by a playful purple toilet and sink, a highlighter-yellow statue, and an electric-blue hanging mirror. Grounded by chunky black Doc Martens, Rosie steps up to the plate to share her stream of consciousness, with her memories often circling back around to things that have happened in toilets. The 22-year-old Lyons, who brings enough energy to embody multiple characters, then proceeds to expertly command the room for 70 minutes (aided by the direction of Debbie Hannan).

There is joy, comfort and unconditional solidarity to be found in the toilets – hair, makeup and relationship advice, and compliments and comfort when you most need it. As Rosie tells us: “Only a space as important as the club toilets can be a hair salon, a photography studio, a therapist’s couch and the whole cosmetic aisle of Boots.”

But of course, we see how toilets can also be places characterised by danger and exclusion – despite the fact that, as Rosie stresses, cis and trans women are united by the violence they face from men. As the play goes on, the resounding message is ultimately about friendship, with Rosie’s friend Zee serving as a prime example of a friend that simply allows her to exist. “The trans bit felt so unimportant when we were together.” She corrects: "Or the importance was already recognised, so we could chat about something else.”

Lyons plays Rosie with such confidence that I found it hard to believe that this is her first major role in a stage production
Lyons plays Rosie with such confidence that I found it hard to believe that this is her first major role in a stage production (Sharron Wallace)

Alabanza – who is non-binary, and became the target of a press smear campaign after being denied entry to a Topshop changing room in 2017 – has previously spotlighted the issue of transphobic abuse in their work. Their debut show, Burgerz, explored public harassment, and was written after someone threw a burger at them and used a transphobic slur on Waterloo Bridge in broad daylight. Alabanza told me then, in an interview for gal-dem: “How can you have a burger thrown at you on Waterloo bridge, during lunchtime rush, surrounded by about 200 people, and no one do anything?”

It was not only the act of harassment that had hurt Alabanza, but all the people who stood by and did nothing. In theatre, marginalised people are so often boxed into the realm of the autobiographical, but in crafting Burgerz, Alabanza was clear that the play wasn’t about them, but about the other people on the bridge: the passive bystanders.

As well as moving further away from that autobiographical space, Overflow explores the problematic concept of allyship. The word “ally” isn't just something you call yourself – it's about what you do. In a passage reminiscent of Burgerz, Rosie weaves through anecdotes of well-meaning cis people who have failed to act when it mattered most. Top of the list is lifelong friend Charlotte, described ironically as "the best cisgender woman to ever exist and ultimate ally and protector of the trans", who doesn’t stand up to transphobic rhetoric when she encounters it in the world. This brings up complex, burdensome questions about friendship, like: “Can I be friends with someone who is friends with someone who is transphobic?”

It is ruminations like this that firmly situate the play in the current moment – where transphobia is becoming increasingly normalised by anti-trans feminists, in conjunction with the mainstream British press. Despite being alone on stage, Rosie brings us vivid vignettes of a number of other characters, including a woman who once declared that entry to a women’s toilet “isn’t about what’s on your passport, it’s about the energy!” But with a nod to how common transphobic ideology has become in recent years, Rosie wonders whether that supportive woman might since have changed her mind. This moment sticks with me, and hammers home the urgency of the situation we currently find ourselves in, when it comes to both rhetoric and policy.

Like much of Alabanza’s work, social commentary and fun are intertwined in this show. A soundtrack fit for a club night (by Francis Botu) pulses under Rosie’s storytelling, and as the show progressed, I was impressed to see that set designer Max Johns had made the toilet and sink fully functional. Water and toilet paper are involved in the play’s crescendo, which is a galvanising spectacle to watch.  

Nonetheless, “going” to the theatre in a pandemic (in other words, tucking up in bed accompanied by the glow of your laptop screen and a tub of ice cream) is always going to be a strange experience. Thinking about what it could have been like to watch the performance in person – in the dark of the Bush Theatre, surrounded by other queer people – stirs up a sense of yearning in me that has ebbed and flowed since the first lockdown in March. There are moments where Rosie re-enacts conversations had in the smokers’ areas at queer nights in London, and I suddenly find myself transported to an earlier life where London queer nights, smokers’ areas and indeed live shows existed. Then my wifi connection drops, and I am transported back.

But beyond problems with my internet connection, there isn’t one moment where the play’s energy lulls. Alabanza and Hannan have undoubtedly crafted an engaging, moving and deeply necessary show that is a joy to watch. Coming away from Overflow, one thing that struck me is that it isn’t on anyone else’s terms; it doesn’t bother itself with the parameters of a “debate” where the balance of power is rigged anyway. Instead, Alabanza carves out a space of warmth, solidarity and sensitivity free from all of that – in the humble setting of a loo.

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