The set of Cotton Fingers is one of transformation; lights glint off the mirror floor and give the brick back wall an otherworldly glow, a dragged bench leaves tracks in dusty debris. But while there are small moments of joy, of comfort, in the show, they never show up in what we see. Carl Davies’ space can be a devastated city street or a cold hospital waiting room, but never a comfy sofa, a welcoming bed. It is hugely fitting for the story – even in the moments of intimacy in the play there is a shroud between the characters; of fear, of family secrets, shame or self-loathing.
While Rachel Trezise’s monologue is often peppered with humour, and Amy Molloy’s performance can lightly and cheekily skip over the material, it is a play where devastation is always present onstage. After 19-year-old Aoife finds out she is pregnant she must travel from her home in Belfast to a clinic in Wales to get an abortion. Money and distance and the law all lay extra barriers in her way as she makes her decision and makes her journey. But the biggest problems are always caused by silence and isolation rather than the material obstacles Aoife faces. Whether it’s lack of information causing Aoife to consider going to a loan shark before she finds out she can get her flight to Wales paid for, her mother’s silence preventing them from taking comfort in each other, or Aoife’s own guilt and confusion, the difficulty of speaking about a difficult subject is what puts this cold space between the characters.
Neither is it the trials and tribulations Aoife faces that make the plays most heartbreaking moments, but the moments of care – whether that’s a soft hand laid on a shoulder by a frizzy haired Welsh nurse or the thousands of Irish women coming home to vote in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, watched with hope by Aoife on her mother’s TV. These rare moments of people reaching out to each other with practical, forceful tenderness show painful glimpses of how the story could have gone instead.
There’s a truthful monotony to the play – I feel like I’ve heard this story before, and we all have. Maybe with a different cast and specifics but with the same broad strokes of suffering. It made me think about the difficulty of making original art in a world that changes so slowly – a story can feel well-worn, even clichéd, but often the reason it is on our stages so much is that it also so much in our streets. I may have felt at times like Cotton Fingers might have nothing new to say, but that is also because all these sensible arguments and heartbreaking stories have been told before, and must still be said, because what they speak of still exists. And quite rightly, the overwhelming message of the play is that this speaking itself is what is needed and carries great worth, whether or not it has been said before, whether or not it makes sweeping change, because without it, silence builds barriers between people and leaves everyone alone.
And so Molloy stands on stage and takes us masterfully through a story that has been told before in different guises, laying out pain and jokes in equal measure. In a grey skirt and top that simultaneously calls to mind hospital scrubs, exercise gear and even a novice nun’s habit, we see a young woman who is utterly unique go through something that is all too common.
Cotton Fingers is at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff until the 8th June, then plays at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. More info here.