Archive Feature: CAKE! (1986)

CAKE! An Acland St. Comedy was the first production staged in the Parish Hall converted into our Theatre Works venue at 14 Acland St. After 6 years of creating theatre in temporary spaces, CAKE! celebrated the permanent home of Theatre Works with a play about St Kilda.

It was performed from the 5th of November to the 6th of December 1986.

After Theatre Works’ highly successful run of The Tram Show in 1982 onwards, the company re-evaluated its position and mission in the community. The company shifted from its original community-orientated starting point and moved towards alternative modes of production. The social catchment for narratives would still be the suburban heartland, but the re-enactments of same would become more exclusively professional. The first years of Theatre Works were marked by works devised for and with various communities. CAKE! drew directly upon the St Kilda locale for inspiration and was the third play in and about St Kilda from the company.

CAKE! author Bill Garner is a prolific writer and frequently collaborates with his partner Sue Gore. Since CAKE! Bill has written Sunday Lunch for the stage, as well as the ABC-TV series One Summer Again, which won the AWGIE Award for Original Work for Television. His television writing credits also include Blue Heelers, MDA and All Saints.

Bill and Sue’s writing credits include The Ishmael Club (a sold out production nominated for three green room awards in 2003 and 2004), The Terms & Grammar of Creation (Green Room Award winner for Outstanding Fringe Production) and Perfecting My Nature Strip (shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and an Australian Writers’ Guild AWGIE Award). Bill and Sue’s 2003 production The Bull-Ant was performed at Theatre Works

The productions program notes detail how ‘the company has developed a reputation for describing the life of the suburbs in a way that challenges and engages the audience on a number of levels – always pushing the realm of what’s theatrically possible into exciting new areas.’  CAKE! was described as a comedy about life in St Kilda, set in the world of performers and their agents. 

An article by Alison Croggon from 1986 interviews Brian Nankervis regarding his personal life and his role in CAKE!. Alison initially reminds readers of Brians notable character from Australian television variety show Hey Hey it’s Saturday; Raymond J. Bartholomews an ‘angst-ridden poet extraordinaire’. She compares Brians personal career progression to that of his characters, detailing his beginnings as a school teacher for 6 years before giving it up in exchange for performing.

Alison’s article provides more information regarding the plot of the production. When asked about the plot, Brian says; 

‘CAKE is basically a hilarious look at an acting agency called Maxi’s Management… It’s populated by a various assortment of odd bods and eccentrics. Hopefully, we’re a bunch of stereotypes. Theres a dismal failure of a hypnotist, a street walker, who also wants to be a poet, a retired burlesque performer and, of course, the pretty boy of the agency who always gets the work. My character’s called Doug Prune, and he’s a post-modern comic who doesn’t believe in punch lines. He’s a bitter, angry, confused young man who is thwarted in his desire to do comedy in front of people. Whenever he gets work, he always has to play a corpse.’

Alison’s piece also tries to interrogate the relevance of cake to the production. She writes that ‘when the agency rebels against Maxi, the play heads off into anarchy. But what do cakes have to do with it?’. After asking Brian he responds vaguely, ‘like most of Theatre-Work’s stuff, it’s firmly rooted in St Kilda, and of course everyone associates Acland St. with cakes. At the end of the show, we sing a song about life being like a cake.’

This interview illuminates the talent that Theatre Works fosters, even in it’s early years. Brian has gone on to become a fixture in Australian television and film, having co-created and co-hosted RocKwiz since 2005, appearing in comedy series Jimeoin 1994 and Bob Franklin’s 2000 sitcom Introducing Gary Petty. Brian has also worked on ABC Radio and has co-produced documentaries for the ABC and Network Ten with his partner Sue Thomas.

The CAKE! program offers comedic biographies of each character, as pictured above.

Brian’s character description is as follows;

Doug Prune’s first stage experience was at a Scout’s Gang Show. A Queen Scout, he has to teach the audience how to sing “Ging Gang Goolie Goolie” while the crew changed the set. Nervous, confused and very pimple, he panicked and unwittingly brought the house down. This led to a string of performances at under ground Carlton Theatre dialogue work-shops. One night he was knocked unconscious by an angry, bohemian flagon of wine and again brought the house down as a twitching corpse for the next four acts. He was spotted by Maxi Mayberry and joined the agency, fuelled by an inexplicable urge to perform post-modern comedy and a desperation to be more than a stiff.

Another member of the CAKE! cast, Val Lehman, has also had an outstanding career as an Australian Actress and Director. Olga Savvidis’ review of CAKE! for SCENE Magazine in 1986 has an emphasis on the sexist attitudes pervading the theatre community in the 1980s in Australia. In an interview with Val, Olga emphasises the power of CAKE! for providing layered comedic roles to female performers. Olga quotes Val saying ‘female roles are not getting any better in this country, I’m afraid. If you look at some Australian-produced series and feature films, there is hardly a single role written for actresses. And what is even worse is that there are not enough female writers being accepted into the business.’

Olga writes that ‘(CAKE!) the delightful, light hearted romp reaffirms Val’s versatile acting talent.’ Val details how she had a lot of fun performing this particular piece saying ‘I think audiences will find out a lot about what goes on behind the making of commercials and what it is like being an actor and an agent in St. Kilda’. Val continued to shine in the impactful Australian series Prisoner which ran from 1979 – 1986. An early series to focus on a womens prison, Prisoner included many plot points which were radical for the time including feminism, homosexuality and social reform. Prisoner went on to inspire the equally popular Wentworth series in 2013 onwards.

While themes of feminism and gender equality may have been considered somewhat radical for the 1980s Melbourne community, these social and political ideals are still of great importance to the work of the theatre today. Theatre Works still aims to amplify diverse voices and in 2020 we’re actioning this through our mentorship programmes and developments including the She Writes program. Hopefully in 2021 we have the opportunity to further these developments and support the next generation of conscious theatre makers.


CAKE! Cast & Crew

WRITTEN BY Bill Garner

PRODUCED BY TheatreWorks

ARTISTIC DIRECTORATE Caz Howard. Peter Sommerfeld, Paul Davies, Wolfgang Wittwer

DIRECTED BY Mark Shirrefs




PROPS MAKER Denis Chapman

SET CONSTRUCTION Dale Robertson, Platon Paxinos

PUBLICITY Maria Farmer, Deborah Hoare


MUSIC Paul Hester

MOVEMENT Amanda Smith





STARRING Chris Barry, Paul Davies, Lynda Gibson, Val Lehman, Brian Nankervis and Caz Howard

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