Written, rehearsed and filmed in lockdown, Marcia Kelson’s Devil’s Food Cake sensitively shines a light on the impact of an eating disorder on one ordinary family. Seventeen-year-old Sophie (Eden Vansittart) is desperate to lose weight, even though to her mum Jenny (Lesley Ann Jones), dad Frank (David Jones) and sister Katie (Eliza Jones), she’s looking more dangerously thin every day. With the support of therapist Jasmine (Caroline Salter), each member of the family adopts a different strategy to try and convince her to eat – but with Sophie well and truly under the spell of the persuasive Ana (Catherine Allison), are they too late to pull her back from the edge?
The play throws us straight into the heart of the story, with Sophie already fully committed to her extreme dieting regime, and her family very much aware that something’s not right. The focus is never really on how they got to this point, but rather on where they go from here, and Kelson paints a moving picture of a loving family unit at risk of being pulled apart by a dangerous force they can’t see and don’t know how to defeat. Zoom productions come with some inevitable limitations, but in this case the format is used well, placing Sophie alone on one screen, while her mum, dad and sister sit together around the kitchen table on another, highlighting her isolation and the growing distance between them.
It’s unclear at what stage in the timeline of events the family reached out to a therapist, but the presence of Jasmine allows us to gain an insight into the psychology of eating disorders, not only for those directly affected, but also for their loved ones. In fact it often feels Jasmine is there more for the audience’s benefit than for the family’s; she spends much of her time directly addressing the camera, and her tenuous animal analogies, while helpful to explain the theory to an impartial observer, repeatedly fall flat with her clients. It’s only when she begins to engage on a more personal level that the family start to make some progress.
This isn’t the only point where the play purposefully sets out to educate. While the part social media plays in promoting unhealthy body image may be obvious to most, there’s also an interesting scene in which Katie explains to her dad the less obvious role of cookies (the computer kind), and the danger that in seeking help online, those affected by eating disorders may find themselves drawn into “support” groups of the wrong kind. This conversation feels a bit deliberate and does little to develop the story, but it does add value to the play in demonstrating how modern technology can simultaneously both help and harm in ways we might not have thought about.
Eden Vansittart gives a compelling performance as Sophie, a teenager caught between her affection for her family and her desperate fear of not living up to the ideal standards Ana demands from her daily. Ultimately this is her journey, and despite everyone’s efforts to help, she alone can decide which path she wants to follow. But that’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Vansittart captures well the turmoil her character is experiencing, especially in a powerful final scene that takes the audience on an unexpected rollercoaster of emotion.
For those already familiar with the impact of eating disorders, Devil’s Food Cake may hit a bit close to home – it comes with a clear trigger warning for good reason. But for those of us who know less, but want to understand more, it’s a powerful and poignant portrait of the untold damage such conditions can cause to both health and relationships, and a fascinating (and depressing) insight into how the modern world we live in, even with all its medical and technological advances, may still only be making things worse.
Devil’s Food Cake is available to watch online as part of Brighton Fringe until 27th June.