REVIEW: Cactus by Madelaine Nunn

It’s 120 days (not counting weekends) until Abbie leaves high school, but she’s got a lot to tackle and endure in those final months. Luckily, she has her best friend, PB, by her side.

Abbie’s period surprises her one day at school and she has to improvise, because she doesn’t have any tampons with her. PB hands her a roll of toilet paper under the stall and it feels like the pair of them are always there for each other in similar ways. PB seems to be more outgoing, forward thinking, forward trying, but that might be because Abbie is held back by the torture of endometriosis. High school and puberty are hard enough without feeling like there’s a cactus scraping at your insides.

So, on top of the usual school dramas like exams and boys and emotions and sex and clothes and the school formal and self-defence classes, Abbie is facing the likelihood she’ll never have children. Something she has always dreamed and assumed would happen for her.

Madeleine Nunn’s script is insightful, and witty; full of hilarious and dramatic vignettes set over those final months of school, where nobody knows who they are yet, but are expected to know what they want and what they should study.

Ayesha Harris-Westman’s performance as Abbie strikes a good balance between humour and pathos. We’re on her side from the first scene and later as we watch her struggle with the need for surgery during these crucial months, while also refusing to delay her exams because she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s getting special consideration.

Lucy Rossen’s PB is the kind of friend we all need in high school – supportive and willing to call us on our shit. But she’s a teenager herself, struggling with a crush and having had sex for the first time. Her description of an erect penis and how it’s like a rice paper roll will stay with me for a long time. I thought I was going to hurt myself from laughing so hard. Rossen also slips seamlessly into playing other characters, effectively off-stage voices in Abbie’s life – a boy she has sex with and, later, Abbie’s mother.

Katie Cawthorne’s direction injects a lot of physicality into the play, fully capturing the enthusiasm and energy of youth. Madeleine Nunn’s script is so polished and incisive, and Cawthorne’s direction heightens the drama and the comedy and never allows the dialogue-driven piece to feel static. This is an exciting combination of talents on display.

Coming-of-age stories so often are played as universal, things we all go through. Cactus focuses on the details of Abbie’s particular struggle with endometriosis that I know a lot of people suffer from, but I’ve rarely, if ever, seen it depicted in fiction. Cactus captures a close teenage friendship with a lot of heart, but knows that growing up can make even those close friendships difficult to endure when you don’t quite get what the other is going through.

Cactus closes at La Mama today.

Photos by Darren Gill