Reviews Published 19 January 2021

Review: Overflow at Bush Theatre

Before the flood: Jess Rahman-González reviews Travis Alabanza’s play about friendship and toilets.

Jess Rahman-Gonzalez

Reece Lyons in ‘Overflow’ at the Bush Theatre. Photo: Sharron Wallace

“You’ve done this before. Well, so have I.”

Rosie (Reece Lyons) is stuck in a public bathroom waiting for the threat of violence on the other side of the door to pass. We wait with her as she recounts significant moments of connection she has experienced in public bathrooms. Written by Travis Alabanza, Overflow is about transphobic harassment in public toilets, friendships, and stare-at-the-floor allyship.

Moving around Max Johns’ visually vaporwave-like set, Lyons revels in every word of her ode to the ‘pre-emptive piss.’ The pre-emptive piss is one planned ahead instead of waiting until you really need to go. Rosie’s pre-emptive piss monologue turns out to be a tool for survival. Rosie and her friend Charlotte made a rule: if Rosie finishes delivering a monologue of her choosing and the external threat is still there, she has to call Charlotte for help. The audience laughs, realising the pre-emptive piss is that monologue. But my heart strains thinking about how trans people must find unique ways like this to survive. Bangs at the door disrupt Rosie’s monologue. She flinches. The pipes above her drip. We know what is going to happen from the first trickle. It’s not a question of if this bathroom will flood, but when.

Rosie’s monologue about the joys of a pre-emptive piss is ultimately about being in control of your body, something that is not guaranteed for trans and non-binary people in public bathrooms. Last year, I wrote a dialogue for Exeunt with my partner and collaborator, Oli Isaac, responding to the transphobic outrage over the Old Vic’s gender neutral toilets. When Rosie recalls a conversation with her best friend Zee about wanting gender to be boring, I feel it. I don’t want to write about toilets anymore.

Alabanza’s writing captures the complexities of transfeminine misogyny. Particularly, that violence toward trans women and transfeminine people is not just enacted by men. That the people banging on the door could be anyone. There is a moment when Rosie refers to men as a flood. Alabanza uses this analogy to excavate why some cis women choose to side with cis men against trans women and transfeminine people. The flood is too vast, too uncontrollable, to know how or where to even begin tackling it. These cis women have been bailing water out of a sinking boat for so long that suppressing trans women and transfeminine people feels like something they can finally solve. An attainable goal. As if trans people aren’t drowning in the same flood too.

Rosie and Charlotte’s friendship highlights how knotty and complex friendships with cis people can be. What does it mean to deeply love someone who is also friends with transphobes? How do you continue investing in a friendship when the other person never challenges others’ views on your right to exist? Friendships with cis people feel fragile, like they’re built on a foundation of quicksand. You love them. Profoundly. But as the headlines continue to mount, there’s a low level persistent fear that your cis friends could reveal themselves and pull the whole thing down. When recounting the first time she felt welcomed in a woman’s public bathroom, Rosie singles out a woman whose name she can’t remember, but told her “it’s not about your passport, just your energy.” She later mentions that she wants to call her up “just to check she hasn’t changed her mind.” It is that insecurity that underlies Rosie’s friendship with Charlotte.

Rosie’s recollection of public toilets have moments of joy and warmth too. She celebrates the multiple purposes a public bathroom can assume simultaneously: a hair and beauty salon; a therapist couch; an AA meeting. It is a place she has felt affirmed by other women, “like someone opening a door to a place where you were always meant to go.” A place where she now hides from people trying to force open that same door. With every bang at the bathroom door, Rosie reminisces about a place that used to be her “sanctuary.” The term ‘sanctuary’ possesses multiple meanings: it can be defined as an oasis, or refer to a place to seek shelter from danger. For Rosie, its definition depends on who waits to meet her at that door.

I think that Alabanza’s study of Rosie and Charlotte’s friendship are the moments Overflow is at its strongest. At other times, the pacing in Overflow is jarring (such as Rosie shouting “stop tweeting” to the random twitter sound effect used once and then dropped). There are also moments where you can hear the writer speaking rather than Rosie; where the intimate character study is swapped out for more of an intellectualised self-analysis of Rosie’s own experiences. But there is a moment towards the end where a potential, hopeful solidarity crystallises, showing how Charlotte and Rosie are both targets of misogyny and warped societal views. Rosie mentions that her cis girlfriends “who look a bit butch” also face hostile glances and unwelcome whispers in public bathrooms. Cis women have a stake in this battle too. It’s not about saving Rosie, she can save herself; it’s about who will stop watching her drown, and start helping her bail the water out.

Overflow is now available to watch online, but I first saw it on the eve of London’s move into Tier 4, less than 24 hours before the live run was cut short. A member of staff came out before the performance and half-joked about another lockdown. It was bittersweet, knowing that this would be the last live performance I would experience in… well, who knows. So I tried to take in as much as I could:

-The reverberations of Gossip’s Standing in the Way of Control.
-The wet thumps of tissue pulp flung at the wall.
-Rosie’s smile and then, the deluge.

Overflow is available online via Bush Theatre until 23rd January. More info and tickets here

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Jess Rahman-Gonzalez

Jess Rahman-González is a writer and performer who works across poetry, theatre, and live art. They are one half of Clumsy Bodies, a trans performance duo in a creative and romantic relationship.

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