A time of change, discovery and shock. That is what confronts Abbie (Ayesha Harris-Westman), a high school student who meets her bff in the most unlikely place. Abbie is in the bathroom at school when she has her first period and doesn’t have the necessary female hygiene product with her to deal with the situation in which she finds herself. She has to improvise … and that doesn’t go well.
Shortly thereafter, her soon to be best friend, simply known as PB (Lucy Rossen), has a similar experience, but is far more relaxed about it. It is a pointer to their respective personalities – Abbie, the main player, more introspective, but a budding feminist and activist, and PB, gregarious. Both are charismatic and intelligent.
The pair bonds and next thing we see is the two of them frequently hanging out together as PB, in particular, counts down the days of school left in Year 12. She is determined not to graduate a virgin. Indeed, boys, sex and looks are, not surprisingly, important components of their conversation.
Unfortunately, unbearable physical pain (which she likens to a cactus inside her, hence the title) becomes all too commonplace for Abbie and a resultant operation will affect her future. Mentally that takes a serious toll on her, as notwithstanding much inherent humour, Cactus moves into some dark places.
It has been well crafted by playwright Madelaine Nunn. Above all, the coming-of-age story rings true and doesn’t appear sugar coated. Abbie’s mindset is clearly affected by what happens to her and, try as she does, PB doesn’t have a magic wand to wave away Abbie’s obvious torment, which is reflected in a vivid repeated vision in the play. It is an effective device.
I was taken by the assured performances of Harris-Westman and Rossen, which served to transport me back into a schoolyard setting decades earlier. That is also a measure of the whip smart – at times hilarious and risqué – dialogue.
Harris-Westman’s is, arguably, the more complicated role as her character’s mood shifts. Her integrity in inhabiting the role is never in question. Rossen channels PB’s joie de vivre with alacrity and conviction. She also plays other characters, including Abbie’s mother and a doctor. They do so against a minimalist set design, consisting of a series of 14 synthetic grass boxes of varying heights, so there is no hiding.
My only minor gripe was that a couple of short music stings served to subjugate the narrative, most notably the opening, which, irritatingly, all but drowned out some the verbiage. An easy fix, mind you – simply turn down the volume of the former. Overall, though, Katie Cawthorne’s sharp direction makes Cactus a memorable night of theatre. It is on at La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton until 4th July, 2021.
I saw a preview performance.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- One and the Other (La Mama) – theatre review
- The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek (La Boite) – theatre review
- Very Nice Pot Plants to Purify the Air and Enrich Your Life (theatre review)
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.