This latest play by the non-professional Putney Theatre Company brings the issue of eating disorders to the fore by focusing on one family. Sophie is coming up to her eighteenth birthday and looks to lose weight by eating less and exercising more. Her mum, Jenny, has a love for food, especially sweet things heavy on the cream.
By looking into the family dynamic both by watching mum, dad, and sister Katie eat normally in their kitchen while Sophie picks at her food, we get a sense of how anorexia and bulimia can develop in a world where impossibly filtered and Photoshopped images give a sense that skinny bodies and ‘translucent skin’ is achievable and normal.
As the family heads into therapy with Jasmine, Sophie also had to content with a voice in her head she calls Ana, who chides her with every mouthful and encourages her “nice steady decline”. Many teenagers do see their bodies as fat and unhealthy, and this is encouraged by social media and sites accessible through Googling.
Marcia Kelson writes and directs this play, which concentrates on the dynamics of the dinner table of this one family. As well as highlighting Sophie’s increasing mental instability, it also focuses on Katie’s frustration at everything being planned around her sister’s eating, and on Jenny’s hurt at her cooking being rejected.
At times, the interjections of the therapist, Jasmine, feel a little bit preachy and explanatory at the expense of the drama, but I liked the idea of an inner voice which flatly contradicts any aspect of help offered to Sophie on her journey. Whether that inner voice wins over is an open question.
When Sophie tells her sister she can see ‘rolls of fat’ on her emaciated body, it is clear she is becoming truly delusional and isolated. This is enhanced by filming choices: the rest of the family are played by actors who are living together, while Sophie is alone in a room without any distracting paraphernalia. Here, in her window, she seems sealed in a cocoon, a stomach substitute, a yawning cavern of nothingness.
Devil’s Food Cake is a well-written and sharply acted piece of theatre, focusing on the perils of ‘ostrich’ parents and security of ‘dolphin’ support. Performances from Eden Vansittart as Sophie and Eliza Jones as Katie are particularly good, while Ian Salter’s editing deals well with the inevitable ‘Zoom window’ necessity we have grown used to in digital theatre.
This is a play very much about food, about enjoying it, cooking it, consuming it, and rejecting it. Bookended by two recipes in very different circumstances, it makes a strong point about the issue at hand.
It inevitably has material that could be triggering for some, and it is making a powerful and devastating statement by presenting Sophie as sharply intelligent, deeply introspective, yet easily led.
You can watch Devil’s Food Cake in the Brighton Fringe from 28 May-27 June. Tickets are £5 and can be booked at https://www.brightonfringe.org/whats-on/devils-food-cake-153706/.
Fringe rating: ***
My thanks to Marcia Kelson for providing early access to the show.
A previous production by Putney Theatre Company was covered in my round-up of short shows in last year’s virtual Edinburgh Fringe – see here.