Whether you remember her for drying your tears, complimenting your outfit, borrowing your lipstick, or offering you a tampon (or a bump), no one will ever be a bigger cheerleader to you than the random girl you meet in the women’s toilets at a nightclub.
A place safe from men and free from judgement – though not always free from irksome spills and smells – public restrooms can be unlikely havens and places of communion. But when sensationalist headlines stir up misled fears about transgender women and what they’re doing in ladies’ loos, somewhere that was once a safe place for relief and respite for gender-non-conforming people can become another realm of discomfort, even danger.
British playwright Travis Alabanza’s (they/them) critically acclaimed one-act play Overflow is a hilarious and devastating exploration of women’s bathrooms, who is allowed in, and who is kept out. It gets its thoughtful Australian debut care of Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Overflow is not the first show to be set in a club bathroom – Hot Mess by the General Public did this, and brilliantly so – but in a first for Australian mainstage theatre, this story is told by an all trans and gender-diverse team.
Rosie is a young trans woman who distracts herself with memories of bathroom encounters – drunken heart-to-hearts by the dirty sinks, friendships forged in front of crowded mirrors. The sole performer, Janet Anderson (she/her), gives a career-defining performance, heartfelt and heart wrenching with great comic timing. Seemingly effortlessly, she holds the attention of everyone in her orbit, seamlessly switching gears to impersonate Rosie’s associates and their various British dialects. Rosie is funny and smart and hurt and just trying to survive and find joy. She doesn't look for trouble; it finds her.
Director Dino Dimitriadis’s (they/them) award-winning personal legacy of championing intersectional theatre is in full force here. Their recent credits include plays that explore queer and trans experiences, such as Cleansed and Angels in America Parts I and II at the Old Fitz, Lady Tabouli at the National Theatre of Parramatta, and De Profundis with Paul Capsis. Dimitriadis also designed the set, a scuzzy nightclub bathroom hemmed by brutal metal and slick surfaces. The scenery evolves with clever use of lighting (by Benjamin Brockman) and sound (by Danni A Esposito): gently throbbing colours and deep bass transport us to the illicit dancefloor, and thudding noises and shocks of fluorescent lighting hurtle us back into the danger of the present. And impressive live water effects devolve the setting into something else entirely.
Alabanza's script is raw, honest, and sometimes blunt in the way it discusses the trans-femme experience. It invites you in and trusts you with the truth. And for this reviewer, it provoked me to reflect on how I have held myself in certain situations. At one stage Rosie implores cis women to think about what they say and do when their trans friend is not in the room, and not only reactively, once discrimination arises. If someone is saying something transphobic and you don't try to change their mind, does that make you transphobic by proxy?
Darlinghurst Theatre has not merely transplanted a British story onto the Aussie stage. You can tell that the Darlo’s artistic director, Amylia Harris, and the team has taken care to integrate the local queer and trans community into this staging. And much like in Benched before it – Jamila Main’s (they/them) interactive performance from the perspective of someone with a disabled body – the result is proper authenticity. The community engagement team on Overflow includes Tommy Misa (they/them), whose show They Took Me to a Queer Bar, recently staged at the Old Fitz for the Sydney Fringe, could be the perfect companion piece to this work.
Every element has been considered. As the audience enters the theatre, an usher welcomes patrons and gives the low-down, including content warnings and accessibility info for the venue. A site-specific art installation transforms the gender-neutral toilets, which are scrawled with actually artful toilet poetry – jars of colourful markers invite toilet goers to participate. At the opening events for the season, local poet, artist, music maker and Darlo Directors’ Lab participant Imbi (they/he) (whose words adorn the bathroom walls) kicked off the proceedings with a spoken-word tribute to the refuge found in public toilets (and the antithesis of safety sometimes found in there too).
Members of the trans and gender diverse community will no doubt find catharsis in Overflow. But really, the show is essential viewing for everyone who is not trans. And I daresay, enlightening.
Overflow plays at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse from September 9-25, 2022. Get your tickets here.