…cake, Theatre Peckham

By Diana Miranda

Theatre Peckham’s Artistic Director Suzann McLean hits the target as she notes that …cake is a bold new play which honours intersectionality. Written by babirye bukilwa and directed by malakaï sargeant, this two-hander drama pulls away from the myth of neatly defined tropes regarding gender identities, roots, class and relationships, and sets out to explore the complexities of stepping out of a familial cocoon that shifts from warm to flaming.

It is a hot spring evening. Sissy, played by Danielle Kassarate, wears a cami and a light gown. Eshe, played by Donna Banya, is wearing an unkempt uniform. After a moment of hesitation, she describes Sissy’s London flat as cosy. Someone in the audience acknowledges the irony with a subtle laugh.

Debbie Duru’s costume design constitutes a telling first impression of both characters as much as her set design does. The flat has beige walls with patches of uneven paint. Vases with dead flowers and bottles of alcohol lay around the clustered space, along with plain furniture, vinyl record sleeves, and a slightly-opened door that gleams slightly at the back. Cosy or not, there is something enticing about the space. From the beginning, the audience is allured by music seemingly floating from an old radio and a record player, a sofa draped with a silky cloth, and Danielle Kassarate.

Kassarate’s performance is captivating. She manifests Sissy’s emotions through a rhetoric of the body that feels like watching poetry. She glides around, leaving a vibrant trace as she loses herself in fantasies, dancing and memories. Donna Banya’s Eshe strikes a balance between heartwarming and heartbreaking. An internal struggle is evident as she arrives unannounced at the flat where she no longer lives. She is a self-conscious and apologetic teenager, but a sparkle lights up in her the moment she sweetly sings along to her favourite tune.

bukilwa’s writing is gripping as they delineate the journey of Sissy and Eshe. The nature of their relationship is not straightforward. The encounter goes from casual dialogue to spoken word poetry in service of the characters’ shifting thoughts and emotions. The songs from recent decades that bukilwa embeds throughout the play radiate within the performance, navigating Sissy’s inner self and eventually, to nuance the boundaries in which a wary Eshe tries to shield herself.

Both actors fill the room and handle the story with intensity. The atmosphere is dense with unsaid thoughts, and the audience unravels their meaning in parallel with the characters. A moment that particularly stands out is the silence that reigns while Eshe smokes by the window and Sissy rolls a cigarette. The tableau vivant they create is an elegant expression of the deceptive calmness preceding the exposure of open wounds.

From open-hearted dancing to a soft crawl into the couch to shield Sissy from the effects of alcohol and truth, the show is rich with emotional expressions that pulsate beyond the fourth wall. Furthermore, the sound and lighting designs project Eshe’s internal journey onto the audience, as Xana’s soundscape accompanies her mental and emotional struggle arc. While the lighting may be at risk of disengaging the audience with interventions that are at times too evident, like the disco lights in Sissy’s living room, it helps to create an environment that feels both isolated and entangled with the outside world.

…cake manifests the magnetism of a relationship too powerful to grow apart but too incinerating to linger. The final blackout will surely leave traces in the mind of its audience. And probably some additions in the playlist for the ride home, too.

…cake runs through 7 August.

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