Complete with purple fittings, a dirty mirror and a replica Venus de Milo statue, the bathroom doubles as an agora, with Rosie ventriloquising the voices of friends and drunk strangers, who pull together against the common enemy of predatory men on the dance floor. At other times, the bathroom is under siege, the staccato sound of aggressive banging on the cubicle doors stopping Rosie in her tracks.
Travis Alabanza's Overflow
Reece Lyons landed the role of Rosie in Travis Alabanza's new play, Overflow, during an open casting call for trans performers. She’s winning and vulnerable as she tugs at her velvet dress, speaking to us from the women's bathroom at a nightclub (oh, what I would do for the adrenaline and sticky floors and rattling bass, Francis Botu’s sound design will have to do for now!) Presented by Bush Theatre in London, Rosie is being streamed live to our living rooms until 23 January, appearing to us in all her isolation.
"the bathroom is under siege, the staccato sound of aggressive banging on the cubicle doors stopping Rosie in her tracks"
A fittingly grotty setting: public bathrooms have been the frontline for debate around trans rights – the argument is often framed by the (statistically unfounded) idea of compromising the safety of cis women, ignoring the very real dangers that trans women face. Alabanza’s script wades in and confronts this issue and many others head on. The bathroom is synecdoche for public space in general, and the question is who is or isn’t allowed access?
"The bathroom is synecdoche for public space in general, and the question is who is or isn’t allowed access?"
Rosie compares life to being strapped to a hamster wheel, slowly revolving and having things thrown at her. It is an overwhelming flood, threatening to 'overflow'. During these analogies you can hear the tapping of Alabanza’s laptop keys bleeding through, in counterpoint to Lyons’ restless, embodied sense of overwhelm.
The play is at its best when Rosie is afforded time to show us her antsy fear of possible persecution erupting at any moment, when her emotions threaten to spill over. One minute, she’s assuming the untouchable silhouette of her friend Zee, throwing her head back for a long drag of a cigarette, the next she’s a child again, cowering from a slasher film watched on TV. In between, she fiddles with the taps and wads up balls of toilet roll, anxious and armed.
There is nuance when she talks about her friend Charlotte, a good egg, but one who won't denounce her transphobic friends - does that make Charlotte a transphobe herself? Rosie thinks not, but Zee has other ideas.
"One minute, she’s assuming the untouchable silhouette of her friend Zee, throwing her head back for a long drag of a cigarette, the next she’s a child again, cowering from a slasher film watched on TV."
It's at moments like this that a part of me wishes the play was a two-hander. Perhaps the grey yet every day ethics of questions such as these would play out better with the friction and pushback of dialogue, rather than memoiristic soliloquy.
Rosie says of her friendship with Zee that the fact of them both being trans is the least interesting thing about it. Yet since the audience only hears about the friendship through the lens of identity politics, we have to take Rosie’s word for it.
Then again, by keeping the focus on Rosie, we are afforded the chance to occupy her headspace for 70 minutes. It's an exhilarating and vulnerable place to be, at times claustrophobic, as mirrored by the setting.
At one point, Rosie says that even the most well-meaning allies somehow look at trans people in a voyeuristic way. It calls into question what exactly the audience is doing in that case, held in close proximity in a space - a bathroom - normally reserved for our most intimate activities.
The women's bathroom is by turns a sanctuary and a site of persecution. Rosie describes nights where the women’s bathroom is the scene of legendary anecdotes being written, sisterhoods being formed. But Rosie can never fully let her guard down. Experience has taught her, as it has many other people, to expect disruption: Stonewall’s 2017 survey found that ‘almost half (48 per cent) of trans people don’t feel comfortable using public toilets through fear of discrimination or harassment.’
"almost half (48 per cent) of trans people don’t feel comfortable using public toilets through fear of discrimination or harassment"
Rigidly gender-segregated public bathrooms are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first on record was a temporary setup at a Parisian ball in 1739. The idea of a chamber box for men in one corner and one in another for women was seen as very novel. The Victorian era ushered in the mass adoption of sanitary plumbing, along with the ideology of putting women in their ‘proper’ place, under the auspices of privacy and modesty.
"Of course, it’s not just bathrooms where gender is violently contested. It is all public space."
It’s within this ideology of the proper – which, of course, also means ‘one’s own’, as in your proper name – that what is deemed appropriate translates to deeply individual lived experience. Alabanza means to show us what goes on behind closed doors.
Of course, it’s not just bathrooms where gender is violently contested. It is all public space. Overflow is a cry from the heart for acceptance and tolerance and the kind of access you don’t have to ask for.
By Sammi Gale