Left – James Slee & Irma Woods. Cover – Luke Carroll & Tim Solly. Photos – Heidrun Lohr
The Cake Man is a seminal piece of Indigenous theatre, and this production at Belvoir St does Robert J Merritt’s classic script proud. It is a difficult play to watch, but an important one.
The show revolves around an Indigenous family living on a mission in Cowra in the 1970s (as the program notes, “a sort of limbo time for Aboriginal people where citizenship was achieved but the Australian dream was still light years away”). Father Sweet William (Luke Carroll) has a drinking problem, but is determined to make his way to Sydney, get a job, and bring his family out after him. Mother Ruby (Irma Woods) relies on the Bible to maintain her relentless cheerfulness as she struggles to take care of her family, which includes a sick baby. Son Pumpkinhead (James Slee) steals to keep his family afloat, dreaming of a day when things will be better. The Cake Man is a crucial figure in Pumpkinhead’s imagination: a man who brings cakes (which symbolise, as Ruby tells us, the love of Jesus) to Koori children as well as white ones, becoming a dreamlike figure of equality.
There are moments of hope and optimism in this play, particularly for Pumpkinhead. But it is so, so hard to see how this family will ever manage to succeed in a world which is conspiring against them. The mission officials are condescending and patronising, willing to believe the worst of the family with no provocation, while pretending to be kind. The dreams of the family are large, but the space in which they are allowed to achieve them is very small. It is very clear that this is still a white world where they are second class citizens. The injustice of this makes the play very difficult to watch – and thus, all the more important.
This is a great production of this complex and gruelling play. All six actors turn in wonderful performances, but I would like to particular commend James Slee, playing the eleven year old Pumpkinhead. His performance is utterly believable: heartwarming and heartwrenching by turns. He is an actor I will certainly be watching for in the future. The play starts out a little slowly – Sweet William’s monologues are fascinating and Luke Carroll does a great job, but the show really finds its feet when the focus is put more squarely on the family. The scenes which Ruby and Pumpkinhead have together are particularly good.
The Cake Man is a show that needs to be seen. It is an important part of our history – both our national and theatrical history. This is a really great production of a play which is in no way easy, for actors or audience. It breaks your heart while making you hope that things can get better.
A Belvoir and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company co-production
The Cake Man
by Robert J. Merritt
Director Kyle J. Morrison
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 14 November – 8 December, 2013
Tickets: $45 – $35
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | belvoir.com.au