Review by Grace Swadling
"Theatre isn't for poor people anymore."
But damn, that should not stop you from going to see a production like this.
From the moment the lights go down, CAKE thrusts its audience into a dizzying spectacle! Opening with a bond meta declaration from Caitlin Dooley, "I know I'm an actor, yes I know this is a play" it is an incredibly engaging and clever piece of art from the minds of Dan Gough and Emma Churchland. Reminiscent of ‘The Great’, this production plunges the airs and graces of the 19th century into modern vernacular and a metatheatrical comment on spectacle, truth and society’s consumption of both. It invited audiences to reflect on their own accountability while reveling in the unapologetic debauchery and spectacle of both the 19th century and our own modern context.
The aesthetic of the entire production was on point; bright pinks, glitter and confetti, a theater in the round, delicious looking sweet treats and even a neon pink guillotine. The lines between classic theatre and immersive, performance art were blended together beautifully, and the entire thing was lit up by Steven May’s stunning lighting design. Costume design by Savannah Fry, Emily Owen, Dan Gough and Casey Turner nailed the French 19th century aesthetic whilst also making the piece sexy, modern and entertaining…honestly everything worked together so perfectly.
CAKE is presented as “a wickedly sharp satire exploring the perils of cancel culture and the power of reputation” - however, the piece never feels like a lecture on the dangers of cancel culture; rather it presents both a hilarious and horrifying look at it’s extremities within the lens of a woman who everything thinks they know. The simple device of having the characters aware that they are actors in a play was utilized extremely well and allowed for a sense of relaxation between audience and actors, especially as the show allowed itself to be silly and not to rely on historical accuracy.
Marie is foiled at every turn in her attempts to be good and we as an audience find ourselves siding with her; what even is the point when everyone has already decided you are bad? Or more succinctly, as Marie asks “If historical accuracy doesn't matter, why does historical inaccuracy?” The image of Marie Antoninette and the reality of her is conflated to the point where an audience is allowed the space and perspective to reflect and relate to this thought-provoking narrative.
The entire cast was superb and each sat well within the conversational dialogue that ran throughout CAKE; you could see them really enjoying themselves and the improvisation in the moment and interaction with the audience was a stand-out of this production.
Ruby Shannon dazzled as Marie; her portrayal of Marie’s naivete and hopefulness was perfectly juxtaposed with her genuine despair and desperation that ultimately humanized Marie, despite the best intentions of the rest of the narrative that the world knows and loves. Even when she was least in control, she was a strong presence on the stage.
Caitlin Dooley almost stole the show with her incredible portrayal of Therese, Marie’s self-aware, metatheatrical PR guru. Her death scene (no spoilers, everyone knows how this story ends) is one of the highlights of the show and her comedic timing had the audience captivated. However it was her ability to dig in and ground the reality of the piece with deep emotional connection towards the end that really moved me. Her powerful speech to Marie about her children and the role she must play was heart-wrenching, and the two women worked well off each other.
Calum Johnston as King Louis was almost out-shone by his female counterparts but as the show progressed was the perfect blend of humor and patheticness that engaged an audience. His layered and complex portrayal of the king really shone in the second act; the most poignant moment of the show came from his simple and yet moving delivery of “In real life we were in love” to Marie.
The ensemble, consisting of Ailie McLeod, Savannah Stern, Josh Richardson and Bill Standish was a delightful addition and completely engaging. Their comedic timing and commitment combined with Hannah Crowther’s choreography really worked to add to the spectacle of the production whilst also showcasing how the general public can turn on anyone on a dime.
Alongside the brilliant cast, the structure of this production is superb! At the end of the first act, I was thoroughly engaged and it almost seemed unnecessary for there to be an interval. However, the second half of the show came back strong; an extended dance sequence, accelerated pregnancy and the deaths of the aristocracy were all incredible but it also came back with a grounded intensity and emotionality that was less present in the first act.
CAKE could have simply been a frenetic romp of heightened fun but Gough and Churchland chose to highlight the dark, emotional realities of Marie’s world, so that by the time Marie finally capitulates and utters those infamous words of hers, it is both triumphant and devastating. The idea of cancel culture isn’t shoved down our throats but there was such clear precise intent with the content and substance of the message that render the production genuinely affecting.
The end of CAKE was visceral and an image that will stay with me for a while. All the elements of this production worked together so smoothly, in such a clever way to technically execute a production like this. Unfortunately CAKE only had a short production run but I would compel audiences to watch this space, as the performers, the writers and the director can only go on to bigger and better things! And if CAKE ever comes back in another iteration you best believe I'll be there with bells on!