Ross Anderson-Doherty is a natural showman. He has charisma, he engages the audience – they love him - and he’s just that bit confrontational. After all, this is a show with a cause. An argument. A case to make. You’ve heard of Weight Watchers? This is Cake Watchers – a riposte to the careful, dieting, slim is beautiful thing, a counter charge. At one point we’re invited to watch Ross watch a pink-iced cake – and not eat it. As if abstinence is all. This is a show about fat – that is to say, anti-anti-fat. Anti-fat-as-an-insult. Anti-use-of-the-word-fat. Anti-slimming. Anti-diet. Anti-gym. And just as important, anti-shame, anti-fat-shaming, anti-self-loathing, anti-thin-equals-healthy.
Ross is a big bearded Bear from Belfast. Initially he wears a large green shirt and – it seems – not much else. Big, not fat. He’s also gay. If this show is anything (and it’s a lot more than this), it’s a celebration of difference. The audience is seated at tables – like at a cabaret café – and on each table is a cake, which we watch. Ross comes down among us and gets volunteers to help with costume changes. We each get a booklet with some Cake Watcher guidelines, quotes and exercises. (Some of these are, it should be said, a bit naff.)
The booklet also contains the lyrics to the witty and ironic songs by Lachlan Philpott (who is Australian) which Ross sings. They are about medical misdiagnosis, propaganda and advertising against ‘fat’, being insulted, escaping into fat-free fantasies and the struggle for self-acceptance – and the acceptance of others. Having the lyrics is useful because Ross has a great voice and sings with great feeling but is hard to understand. I checked this out with others at adjoining tables. Could be the Theatre Works notorious acoustics, could be the sound system or the sound mix, could be the Belfast accent.
Whatever it is, there is a long and vivid anecdote about collapsing in a gym in the desperate pursuit of weight loss. During this ‘collapse’, Ross’ heart stops, and he hallucinates a shadowy man who somehow gets him to hospital only to – later – force cake down his gob. It’s a cautionary tale. You see what happens when you buy the hype? As one of Mr Philpott’s songs has it:
But I’ll be slimmer/ Slimmer of the Year/ Before and After on the front of magazines/ Mistaken for a stick, a human toothpick/ And I’m feeling dizzy dizzy dizzy/ Weak and sick
As an inclusive and defiant celebration, the pink cake is cut and served to the audience – with, naturally, a gluten free alternative. We all repeat The Cake Daddy Pledge, which begins: I pledge to be a good egg and challenge fat stigma, fat shame and anti-fat-bias whenever I can.
And I will plug myself with [a] cucumber and let it rot inside before I conflate health with thinness.
The show is great fun and also convincing – up to a point. The most recent research shows that it’s not a thyroid problem, that big people are not necessarily ‘fat’ and that therefore should not immediately go on a diet. But there is ‘fat’ and there is fat and there is morbidly obesity and there is diabetes and inhibited mobility. But… anyway… We are made to feel quite rightly the humiliations of labels and the shame of not being ‘normal’ and the body embarrassment that goes with sex. As Ross sings in a song he’s written himself:
It’s really not important stuff/ It’s not like my life’s that tough/ But diet culture’s endless stare/ Seems cruelly focussed on this bear/ From you and in the mirror too/ It’s a tiny never-ending crazy thing
The finale is a reveal of posters of naked Ross in all his glory and a costume change to something bright and pink and gold resembling a special kind of super hero outfit with an apple on his head. We may not entirely buy the argument, but we certainly buy Ross. He’s fabulous.