Belfast performer Ross Anderson-Doherty's Midsumma comedy introduces a new weight loss program
There’s been a lot of discussion about identity in the general community, and it’s a theme that has come to dominate this year’s Midsumma festival. We’re talking about gender identity, sexual identity, racial identity. Disability is finally fully on the agenda. But fat? Well fat, according to mainstream social norms, just ain’t right. More than this, it’s wrong, even has a whiff of immorality about it. It isn’t only the people who fall outside the ideal of physical beauty who are trapped by this mentality; all of us have become dangerously obsessed with our bodies, and the fuel that drives them, and we’re looking around for someone to blame.
Ross Anderson-Doherty is a Belfast theatre-maker who has descended on Melbourne’s Midsumma like a giant pink inflatable swimming aid, and he’s here to tell us all about, wait for it… Cakewatchers! It’s a new, totally fabulous, completely indefatigable weight loss scheme, unlike all the other, failure-inducing weight loss schemes that have come before. This one has three central tenets: “Watch the cake!”, “Know your cryminals!” [sic] and “Practise your manoeuvres!”. Ross is going to take us through and out of this new routine, with a touch of autobiography on the way down.
Cakedaddy is best described as a three-way collaboration between Anderson-Doherty, playwright Lachlan Philpott and director Alyson Campbell; an attempt to wrangle the separate aesthetics of three people into a semi-autobiographical, cabaret-inflected musical weight-appreciation class. It succeeds on a number of levels, but it also feels a little insubstantial, like the cake that sits at the centre of the show. It also sits at the centre of our tables in the form of a Tunnocks tea cake, which we crowd around in true cabaret style, told to watch it like a hawk in case it leaps up and forces itself into our mouths.
This is tenet number one, and speaks volumes about our tendency as a society to demonise foods, to view what we eat through a moral lens. This is made explicit by tenet number two, which has the audience match certain foods to certain celebrities; that Tunnocks tea cake is matched with Pauline Hanson, while pickled beetroot is Princess Di. The final tenet talks about exercise, and it’s here that the show takes a notable turn.
The lights go down on the audience and Anderson-Doherty shifts the mood towards the confessional. He tells us a story of his experience of going to the gym, of passing out in the locker room and then his subsequent hospitalisation, where he discovers his heart had stopped. It’s incredibly moving and intimate, and yet it’s also curious, because anyone with a passing knowledge of Philpott’s work will notice his fingerprints all over it; the rhythm of the writing, its expressionistic details, and its delicate and exquisite timing. It’s the one moment in the show when the dramatic inclinations of all the creatives coalesces.
The rest of the show is much shaggier, coming across as stand-up or improvised riffing on the theme of weight. There are a lot of thoughtful meditations on fat identity in a queer context, and plenty of barbed witticisms flying about, but the dramatic arc of the piece needs more clarity. When Anderson-Doherty finally ditches the “cakewatchers” schtick and emerges as Cake Daddy, the personification of fat pride, the effect is rather muted. The shift from judgement and shame to acceptance and affirmation is almost perfunctory, when it needed to be revelatory.
The production is a lot of fun, and is energetically delivered, with terrific lighting by Bronwyn Pringle, great songs by Marty Byrne and wicked lyrics by Anderson-Doherty and Philpott. It also has something radical to say about our view of health and weight: that fat is an identity much like queerness, not something chosen or indulged but a part of who we are. It brands diet culture as poisonous to our health, and it makes that point powerfully and without compromise. Let us eat cake.