I was delighted to receive an invitation to watch Overflow at The Bush Theatre. I had seen a lot of buzz about it online prior to lockdown closures and then again with its online streaming debut. Despite this, I went into the play knowing little about it, save that it was written by the award-winning and acclaimed Travis Alabanza. Looking back with hindsight I’m glad that this was this case. Overflow is a bodily experience, and best witnessed in person; as the play’s essence cannot be fully captured by words.
The show opens with Rosie (Reece Lyons) a trans woman being chased into a leaking women’s bathroom. While waiting for her pursers to give up their harassment, she performs a monologue about ‘pre-emptively pissing’ and recounts past experiences of other bathrooms, the events and the feelings which led her into them. The audience watches and listens while Rosie contemplates calling her friend Charlotte (a cisgender woman) for help with her harassers. During this hour-long solo performance, we, the audience, go on a journey with Rosie that explores her friendship with Charlotte, and then Zee, the sisterhood of bathrooms, trans identity, othering, fear, and patriarchy.
It would be remiss of me to go any further without referring to the stage presence that is Reece Lyons. This is a very physical play, and Lyons moves with deliberate enthusiasm and vibrant energy. Often, I feel apprehensive about solo shows because a large part of it hinges upon the strength of an actor’s ability to draw you into the world of the play. There was no need for concern with Lyons who strutted and paraded around, dominating the stage with incredible vigour. Lyons’ character transitions were swift and convincing. I should nod my head to movement director Annie-Lunette Deakin Foster whose choreography added a level of dynamism needed to execute this energetic play. Production and set design for Alabanza’s show is simple yet effective. The stage is a large club bathroom, equipped with a mirror, sink, toilet, bin, and Grecian statutes. In addition to this, was some exposed tubing that leaked infrequently, often during moments of high emotionality.
The play’s narrative is episodic as Rosie chooses different memories to replay. The first being the ubiquitous moment in a club toilet where drunken women immediately forge friendships with whoever else is present. In this episode, Rosie is early on in her transition, and she recounts a time when an unnamed ciswoman welcomes her by telling her it’s not about what her passport says but it is about her energy. This sort of bumbling but genuine acceptance is juxtaposed with the silence of Rosie’s supposed real friends and family when a restaurant manager causes an issue about which bathroom she can use.
Parallels and opposites are recurring motifs in Overflow. We meet another best friend, the illustrious single-lettered-name Zee, who is this effervescent, self-assured, blunt transwoman. Friendship with Zee seems less arduous than it does with Charlotte. Their trans identity is accepted as a fact needing little acknowledgement rather than a novelty. It is in the section of the show where a particularly striking line sticks out for me “if your friend is friends with a transphobe, and hasn’t tried to change their minds, then I guess…that makes her a little transphobe too. Right?”. People will say that it is a play about friendship and in part it is, but it is also a play about integrity and what it means to see someone to really see someone. What it means to see yourself as yourself outside others’ expectations and fear.
The play is as much a meditation on the nature of fear, who it belongs to, how it drives people. A poignant scene in the play is Rosie describing fear as this anthropomorphised Bogeyman, first belonging to her, then her brothers, then society at large. The engulfment at the enormity of the emotion leads to her causing the bathroom to overflow. In direct audience address, Rosie muses about how so-called feminist politics and decries against patriarchy has become both inverted and subverted, and transformed into a tool used against trans women. All in the name of controlling fear, it is a heavy provocation.
You would think that a play dealing with such heavy subject matter would be without levity, but this is not the case. Alabanza’s writing is humorous, full of wit, with punchy lines, it is also beautifully lyrical in places and reflective. The audience laughed heartily throughout, due to Alabanza’s expertly crafted wordplay and keen directing from Debbie Hannan.
In conclusion, I would urge you to go and see Overflow and not because of any trite cliches about it being an important play about important issues. This is true, but because you will belly-laugh, and be challenged and see a well-made piece of theatre and leave changed by it.
Catch Overflow at The Bush Theatre from 04 September – 09 October 2021
Run time: 1 hr (no interval)
Trigger warnings about the show can be found here.