The cast of Porn.Cake | Griffin Theatre

Let them eat cake, said Marie Antoinette, supposedly, in one phrase betraying her remoteness from her subjects. Or, if you want to be a stickler, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. OK, so the attribution may be as apocryphal as the exodus, but it seems, even way back when, confectionery was liable to sublimate more substantial aspirations.

The characters in Vanessa Bates’ latest pay for Griffin Theatre might’ve just as well have stuffed their faces with cake and spared us the dialogue altogether, for all the good it did, insofar as exposition is concerned. Bates’ play is symptomatic of a trend, thankfully not so very widespread as yet, that would purport clipped phrases, unfinished thoughts and sentences, et al, are enough. Enough for the intelligentsia, or those who would sel-appoint themselves as such, to intone, with a knowing superiority’s, ‘I see where she’s going with this’.

I mean, sure, I’m all for flattering the intelligence of the audience, by leaving a few blanks to fill and dots to join. But when we go ’round and ’round the mulberry bush, in a series of groundhog day vignettes involving two (apparently) middle-class couples bored to the back teeth with their lot, and reach the point where the exchanges are as banal as “am I attractive?”, to which the barbed, baited reply (albeit subsconciously so) is “sure, you’re still attractive”, I’m not sure there’s much point in it all. I mean, yes, middle-class conversations and lifestyles can be and are banal, but we know that. Couples in long-term relationships struggle to maintain affection, lust and respect for each other. We know that. The point is, I didn’t get anything new out of this play. No insights,let alone surprises or revelations.

Yes, but it’s told in a new way, you say. Well, yes. A lot of cakes were harmed in the making of this play. And, yes, I do like the big, bold, graphic idea of people hungering for more (more affection, love, sex, respect, meaning, fulfilment, and so on) voraciously, even obscenely devouring cakes as a substitute. And the audio links, between scenes, which steal saucy excerpts from Jamie and Nigella’s television programmes. But what is there, beyond that? We descend into a spiral, a daisy-chain, of almost meaningless phrases: “cake is the new porn”; “love is the new Google”; “confusion is the new love”. Need I go on?

The idea is that ‘nothing is said, but everything is meant’. Sure, we get that. And we can read and intuit the torments, dilemmas and emotions that rack and ruin their already petty, practiced, unrelentingly safe and mundane lives. To that extent, the work has strengths. And quite profound ones. But the dizzying groundhog repetition of phrases that don’t even pass muster as euphemisms is aggravating. Why not, instead, have the courage of one’s convictions? Why not be a true believer in the ‘nothing is said, everything is meant’ precept and do away with dialogue altogether? I know, I know. It’s a lot to ask of a writer, to do abandon words. Than again, perhaps that’s the acid test. Such a move would’ve been compelling, challenging and effective, methinks.

Designer Justin Nardella intrigues with his set that sucks up the entirety of the small space that is the Griffin stage, reinvented as a sunken lounge; beige, like the lives of the protagonists. I don’t know why it’s sunken; perhaps to reflect their flagging spirits. It’s almost as if it’s going to swallow them; like drowning in quicksand. It’s tres What’s It All About, Alfie?, or Austin Powers, to my mind.

Shannon Murphy’s done a sterling job of directing her cast, who bring plenty of energy and intensity to their respective roles (the problem’s the play itself, not the production): Georgina Symes (Bella); Glen Hazeldine (Ant); Olivia Pigeot (Annie); Josef Ber (Bill).

Pigeot begins, solo, with the most lucid tract of the play (which isn’t saying a whole helluva lot). It’s a longwinded fairytale, of sorts, about a tiny, imaginary man. It transpires, in a fit of tears dow the track, she dropped her panties, at his bidding. WTF? If an allusion to repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, it’s about the clumsiest one I’ve ever run into. The tale is well-told. It’s vivid; almost cinematic. But I still don’t get it. There’s more coherence in Hazeldine’s nightmarish confession of an affair, or contemplated affair, which costs him his tongue.

Symbolism I did favour was the large, shiny cake-knife, which looked and was wielded in a very menacing way. This was as powerful an intimation of fear and insecurity as Ant’s midlife meltdown.

It was a clever trick to stop the show and have Ber nervously explain the break in transmission was due to Symes’ (well, Bella’s) gluten intolerance; but, again, other than chalking one up for the writer, director and actors and allowing us a surprise laugh, what was the point? Worse, it broke the momentum of anything more serious being ‘plated’.

Cake as porn? Well, there may be a specific point about the vulgarity of our obsession with and fetishisation of food (and celebrity chefdom), but there’s also, presumably, a concern with consumerism, per se, as a stand-in for culture and fulfilment, usurping our senses and, chief among them, our common sense, as we robotically tread the yellow brick road to obsolescence. We may be living longer, but are already past dead, like God, who’s been replaced by an app. So, it seems, there are pretensions to Marxist, Freudian and even Jungian ideologyes, but like the relationships the play focuses upon, or the script itself, these touch points remain largely unconsummated.

Maybe the clipped, truncated, unfinished word-loops point to coitus and conversation never finished, constantly interrupted by kids, professional and financial demands, sms, email and the minutiae of modern life. I keep turning it over in my mind, but it doesn’t make for much, if any, more clarity or understanding.

In its attempt to describe and address contemporary disaffection it has its heart in the right place, but having picked up the ball, fumbles it. It’s funny (that’s the icing), but depressing (this is no fluffy sponge): if you’re about to enter into a long-term relationship, be afraid; be very afraid. All in all, it’s confounding and frustrating. Worst of all, it indulges the kind of self-pitying navel-gazing only the relatively well-to-do can afford and, inasmuch, it’s detestably bourgeois and oblivious to the far more fundamental concerns the plague most of humanity.

“I’m sorry. It’s just, I thought this was just cake.” I’m sorry. It’s just, I thought this was just a little too tedious. Too much like hard work, with no reward. Except the cake passed out to the audience at the end. Like the play itself, another confection, without much nutrition.

The details: Porn.Cake plays Griffin Theatre until July 14. Tickets on the company website.