Review by Naomi Cardwell.
Downstairs, and down another sweeping staircase again, there’s a riotous little enclave carved out at the Melbourne Arts Centre’s core. At its middle sits a neon-lit toilet cubicle, lurid pink and slashed with uplifting graffiti messages. “Trans lives matter!” declares the cistern. “Gay Love, Always!” reads a message encircled by a heart on the wall next to the bowl. Thumping music competes with the swelling sound of a fabulously frocked and suited audience, who set to the earnest business of taking a marker and reclaiming the loo with messages of love and positivity.
Inside the theatre, another toilet greets us: a monolithic nightclub washroom in which a trans woman is trapped, cut off from her friends, cowering as louts outside hammer on the door. Travis Alabanza’s Overflow is a daring one-woman show, set entirely within this bathroom. As Rosie, Janet Anderson paces, oscillating between panic and defiance as a clogged toilet sloshes water around her ankles and the pounding on the door continues relentlessly.
Alabanza’s writing is the kind that masterfully halts single moments, slowing them to granular pace and examining them under the light. The result is prismatic. From Rosie’s nightmare in this cubicle, we’re thrust into her entire history of toilet-going: from hiding in the family bathroom from the boogeyman, to burning with humiliation as prime suspect in a school toilet-clogging spree, to the ecstasy of acceptance in nightclub piss spots and the agony of shame being ejected from a ladies’ loo before a silent, judging queue.
Innovative lighting by Benjamin Brockman moves us through time and place, flowing over the edges of the claustrophobic set and cascading into the blank surrounds. In sickly flashing green and neon pink, Rosie dances, remembering shrieking to her mates over the pounding nightclub music in better times, when toilets were a man-free HQ, and makeup and hair ties were shared provisions. Under relentless fluorescents, she recalls her Catholic schoolteacher’s pontificating lectures. In the shadows and rippling light reflected by the water, she wonders if her fair-weather allies were ever really her friends to begin with.
As Rosie, Janet Anderson is luminous. Sultry and mesmerizingly beautiful in one moment, gawkily comedic in the next, she has the air of a gamine silver screen actress in her prime. The show reads like a series of monologues, which Anderson inflects with light and shade and beautiful tonal shifts as Rosie drinks, smokes, and flutters from memory to memory looking for answers, while the pounding on the door escalates. She falters occasionally, seeming to wait for a cue or the right timing before gathering herself and recovering impressively in the demanding one-woman setting. Her physicality, devised by movement director Fetu Taku, is gorgeous. At times, she’s a neon-lit ballerina living her best Flashdance life, defiantly splashing arks of water which seem to suspend in the moment, twinkling around her like fairy lights. At others, she tantrums in her platform boots or anxiously paces in her concrete cage.
The set, by director and set designer Dino Dimitriadis, is as stark and in-your-face as a Duchamp Readymade. The standard-issue stainless steel toilets cast a menacing sheen across the rising water on the floors, where yucky detritus from the bin begins to float. A jaunty yellow sharps container and sanitary bin complete the look – but perhaps the most compelling feature is the large, unadorned mirror mounted above the trough-style washbasin. Hundreds of eyes – our eyes, in the audience, are reflected in that mirror, passively watching on as Rosie frantically tries to figure out her escape. We are complicit, the mirror reminds us gently. This is happening to Rosies everywhere because we let it happen.
We’ve let public toilets become a trap. Once, Rosie was enfolded into the hectic camaraderie of women’s bathrooms, bolstered and protected by gaggles of strangers-become-besties. Now, an insidious confected controversy, generated by a group who identify themselves around the principle of exclusion, has made the humble toilet precisely as larger-than-life as the monolithic set suggests.
Through Rosie, we learn about “pre-emptive pissing” and intentional dehydration, strategies trans people have been forced to adopt in a world where daring to need a wee is somehow interpreted as a provocation. “Trans people are forced into activism every day of their lives simply by leaving their homes,” Dimitriadis explains before the show, and unfairly, the TERFs have picked the loo as the setting for their latest, dehumanising stand.
Afterward, I queue for a post-show wee. For the first time, I choose the gender-neutral bathroom with a urinal symbol on the door. I realise I’ve taken for granted a lifetime of pissing in peace, never appreciating the fragility of the safe spaces where supplies are shared easily, and giddy compliments exchanged. I want to see what it’s like to feel awkward, faltering, and uncertain with a full bladder insisting I press on anyway. I try to imagine Rosie’s constant calculus, of how long she could hold it in versus how hateful or dangerous the response might be if she dared walk through either door. I imagine what it would be like to be pulled out of the queue by security while everybody stares. “Club toilets,” she says, “taught me more about Sisterhood than any book I’ve read since.” It’s devastating to realise those truths include lessons about the Sisterhood’s fickleness, cruelty and betrayal.
Confronting, hilarious, and completely illuminating, Overflow is another of Travis Alabanza’s growing body of works that expose the common, everyday cruelties we permit ourselves to perpetrate against each other.