Travis Alabanza’s gripping new play teaches a powerful lesson about bathrooms, transphobia and female friendship
Travis Alabanza’s new play, Overflow, takes place in a bathroom: white tiled walls and floor, purple toilet and sink, mirror, dripping pipes.
In the bathroom, a young woman, Rosie – played by Reece Lyons – begins a monologue about pre-emptive p**sing. It gradually becomes clear that Rosie has locked herself in the bathroom, and is waiting for it to be safe before venturing out.
The staging is deliberate, of course. Women’s bathrooms have become the focal point (along with domestic abuse refuges, prisons, and women’s sports) of transphobic campaigners, who claim that bringing Britain’s gender-recognition law in line with more progressive countries poses a direct threat to women’s safety.
Their claim is refuted by evidence, which shows that the “bathroom predator myth” concocted by US anti-trans groups (in which predatory cisgender men will use transgender rights to abuse women) has no empirical basis. And reality shows us that the opposite is true – a recent report by LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop found that two-thirds of trans people in the UK are too afraid to use public bathrooms.
This fear, of gendered public bathrooms and those who might violently police those spaces, will be familiar to any trans person; especially so to trans women and femmes. What Travis Alabanza does in Overflow is open up that sensation for a wider audience.
Through Rosie, we feel the threat of what is waiting for her outside – she’s been chased into this bathroom, and she’s hiding from danger. Lyons captures the defiance of this experience: shouting back at the intermittent banging on the door; pointing out that she will outlast her would-be attackers, it’s not her first time; reminiscing over better times spent in bathrooms; while looking at herself in the mirror, pulling at her velvet dress, almost tenderly trying to work out what it was that got her clocked. Her height? The contour of her jawline?
It’s not just a play about fear, though. Rosie reminisces about the camaraderie of the women’s toilets in London clubs – palpable anecdotes to anyone who has spent time in them. Intense, fleeting friendships between drunk women, make-up shared, wisdom imparted, boyfriends dumped. Lyons takes on a variety of relatable characters, including that of an old best friend, Zee, a trans lesbian who now lives north of the river with her girlfriend and doesn’t go out-out.
Lyons’ performance is warm, funny, sympathetic. Rosie tells stories of being part of the unspoken alliance of the women’s toilets – sometimes in situations where her transness is noticed; mostly where it’s not part of the story at all, like when the “well-oiled machine” of those in the club toilet protect a younger girl hiding from a Matt (don’t we all know a Matt) and get her a taxi home.
And, while the play itself is riveting and not in need of a defined take-home message, Alabanza does seem to want to make a point here. Women’s bathrooms have been and should be a safe space for trans women, just as they are for all women. Yet the threat Rosie is facing as she tells us these stories is because of her transness – an added level of danger that cis women don’t experience. And while the cis women in her bathroom anecdotes are accepting of Rosie, she wonders about how far this kinship goes – what do the “Guardian gobbling” friends of her cis female friends think of her, really?
There’s a line in Overflow that Lyons repeats: “If your friend is friends with a transphobe and hasn’t tried to change their mind, is your friend a transphobe?”
It’s a heavy sentiment, which speaks to the limitations of online “allyship” and to the work trans people must constantly do to ensure our safety in this world. If Alabanza’s debut, Burgerz, opened cis people’s eyes to the violence inflicted on trans femmes, Overflow will hopefully provoke a conversation about how the “debate” over trans rights is experienced by trans people in real time, in real life.
Sadly, the Bush Theatre has had to cancel performances of Travis Alabanza’s Overflow from December 16 to 22 due to London moving into Tier 3 restrictions. Tickets are available for performances in January 2021.