70 out of 100 – babirye bukilwa’s ‘…cake’ at Theatre Peckham

babirye bukilwa’s second play cake was developed as part of Theatre Peckham’s Artist-in-Residence programme …

But, before I get into this review, I want to thank Suzann McLean and the team at Theatre Peckham for creating a home for Black theatre-makers. I have never been to a professional theatre venue that makes a point of selling products by black-owned businesses in the foyer (shout out to @itsblackowneddotcom), that gives me the option of sipping some cool sorrel as I watch the performance or in which the number of Black people in the audience far outweighs the number of white people. It felt like I was back at university – no pretence between the actors and the audience, and a sense that it was the community taking centre stage.

Now onto my review…

 …cake is a prequel to …blackbird hour – a debut that received widespread acclaim, making the shortlist for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and the finals of the Women’s Prize for Playwriting. …cake takes us back to the childhood of Eshe (Chioma Nwalioba) – who we were first introduced to in …blackbird hour as a 25-year-old queer Black woman – and follows the relationship between her and her mother (Nadine Woodley). 

The entire play is set in Eshe’s mother’s claustrophobic flat – a stifling environment, where the windows are permanently closed, and wine bottles, glasses, and blunts litter all available surfaces. As the play progresses, and the relationship between Eshe and her alcoholic mother unfolds, it becomes clear that the flat is a metaphor for the chokehold Eshe’s mother has on her – as Eshe says later in the play, “You hate me if I leave, and you hate me if I stay.”

But, while hate proliferates on the surface, love and hate also become interchangeable terms: whether Eshe leaves or stays, their love for each other remains – even if it has an undeniably toxic dimension. The underlying tenderness of this mother-daughter relationship is most successfully revealed through bukilwa’s use of music. The play opens with Eshe’s mother, singing along to Sade’s Jezebel. Woodley’s performance suggests a fragility beneath the dysfunctional exterior of her character. Later, Woodley and Eshe sing along to Des’ree’s You Gotta Be. The infectious chemistry between Woodley and Nwalioba suddenly reveals why Eshe has come back to see her mother and why she struggles to leave her, despite repeatedly saying she needs to go.

Cast of …cake (l-r) Nadine Woodley; Chioma Nwalioba

Woodley, Nwalioba, and their director, Malakai Sargeant, only had 3 days of rehearsals to put the play together – a formidable achievement, but I think this is also where some of the flaws in the production came across. Woodley and Nwalioba, for example, both had scripts in hand for the entire performance – not a problem in itself, but, particularly at the beginning of the play, I felt that this hindered the actors from keeping pace on each other’s cues. The outcome was that bukilwa’s dialogue initially sounded stilted and unnatural.

I also wasn’t entirely convinced by the lighting and sound choices – I understand that bukilwa was using light and sound as an insight into Eshe’s mental state, but I think a lack of intensity in how bright the lighting or how loud the sound was meant that these choices often felt quite random and distracting. Similarly, I was unsure why – despite the stage being filled with set pieces, like a sofa and dining table – that a lot of the set, like an oven, sink, and CD player were mimed.

I love to see actors miming, but if they could mime some of the set pieces, why not reduce the whole set to a black box with only the wine bottles and blunts remaining (and so a greater standing out) as symbols of Eshe’s mother’s substance abuse? This would, in fact, enable the whole set to feel more symbolic of Eshe’s mental state, and perhaps help the lighting and sound choices communicate better to the audience.

Despite these criticisms, I did thoroughly enjoy …cake and was particularly impressed by the performances of Nwalioba and Woodley – the energy and passion they brought to their performances excellently complemented each other, and reminded me of the uniqueness of live theatre in comparison to watching everything through a screen. I also thought that Sargeant worked successfully to bring nuance to the abusive relationship between Eshe and her mother. And, finally, I am so excited to see bukilwa’s work performed. Watching …cake felt like watching debbie tucker green at the beginning of her career, and I urge theatres to keep staging and audiences to keep watching bukilwa’s thought-provoking and heart-wrenchingly sensitive work.

Altogether, …cake painted an uncomfortable portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, and, despite some flaws in performance, I thank the team for their sensitive exploration of characters, themes and issues which are not always given space on our stages.

So, thank you Theatre Peckham, and make sure you check out their Young and Gifted season coming up in the next couple of weeks.

You can find out more about babirye bukilwa and their work as a writer and activist by following them on Instagram or Twitter @babiryebukilwa.

To find out more about other upcoming shows and projects in Theatre Pekcham’s Young, Gifted and Black programme, follow this link.


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