La Mama’s Cactus is a sweet coming-of-age tale that addresses the agony of infertility, says Monique Grbec
Cactus at La Mama is a coming-of-age tragi-comedy that brims with laugh-out-loud moments. Written by emerging playwright Madelaine Nunn and directed by Katie Cawthorne, the play won the ATYP Rebel Wilson Theatre Maker scholarship and was shortlisted for the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award.
The story centres on Abbie (Ayesha Harris-Westman) and how a serious illness and fertility issues affect her happy-ever-after story. Played on a set that features green acrylic grass covering a series of block-shaped plinths of varying heights, we first see Abbie is an earnest young woman in a burgundy-coloured netball skirt and white shirt.
She squats as if on a toilet, her elephant-print cotton underpants pulled down around her knees. There’s a large, dark brown period stain centred on the crotch as she bemoans her unexpected bleeding. She considers reusing a clean-looking sanitary pad poking out of the sanitary bin but instead winds up lengths of toilet paper to create a makeshift pad.
Bits of the single ply paper disintegrate as she rubs it against her inner thigh trying to clean off the dried blood. Frustrated and unsatisfied, she finally realigns her skirt to hide any stains and exits the stall. Things could be worse. In a toilet a few stalls up Pb (Lucy Rossen) unabashedly introduces herself and asks for toilet paper – she too is bleeding but her stall has no paper.
Synchronised periods and the under-the-wall passing of toilet paper bond the two. As they count down the days during their final year of school, they banter about their plans to live in Berlin and ride Vespers, ethical clothing, “mid-range” looks, career choices, losing their virginity and the connection between natural selection and boys behaving badly – like their friend who gets his dick stuck in a test-tube. “How’d they get it out?… Lucky he didn’t get a stiffy.”
The flow of their lives is disrupted as Abbie’s periods become more and more painful until the agony has her writhing on the floor. She gets onto Google to check if anyone has ever died from a bad period.
Abbie’s specialist tests include being probed with an object the size of her mother’s “decorative pepper grinder” – the perfect preparation for sex with a robot. From there she dons a white hospital gown and, in the centre of the darkened stage, is cloaked by a soft spotlight. Daniella Esposito’s sound design fills the space with a pulsing that feels like submersion. After the operation, she is infertile.
The post-operation humour includes self-deprecating wordplay from Abbie about her “twisted ovaries” and “phantom pussy” and some acid comments from the ever-supportive Pb: “Kids are cunts anyway … and, babies eat your brain. It’s a proven fact.” Later Abbie loses herself in online searches about famous actors who don’t have children. She recalls her mother telling her that Abbie is “the best thing that ever happened” to her, and overhears her mother crying.
A support group for women with fertility issues sends her into a downward spiral which is exacerbated by Pb losing her virginity: “I had sex with a human penis… at the beach… after Maccas… with a strawberry condom… his penis was like one of those rice-paper rolls your mum gets but with sauce coming out the top.”
Abbie starts carrying around a water bottle, buys some lacy lingerie and sets about losing her virginity. It’s a dismal experience that ends with the boy’s comment: “Good to know I can’t get you pregnant.” Abbie and Pb egg his car – the eggs explode against the black back wall of the stage in plumes of dark red chalk. Pb is shocked to learn that Abbie’s water bottle is full of gin.
It’s not until the school formal that the girls’ friendship returns. With pincer-fingers plucking out gummy bears from tiny packets, they bask in the sweetness of companionship. It’s this idyllic warmth, solidly portrayed by Harris-Western and Rossen, that binds Cactus’ comedic quips and its promise that friendship can be strengthened by adversity. As they bowed to the audience, we felt no doubt that these two performers had created a lifetime bond.
Cactus, by Madelaine Nunn, directed by Katie Cawthorne. Costume and set design by Ellen Stanistreet, lighting design by Aedan Gale and sound design by Daniella Esposito Performed by Ayesha Harris-Westman and Lucy Rossen,. La Mama Theatre. Until July 4. Bookings