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A New and Better You at the Yard Theatre

A New and Better You - Photo by Helen Murray
A New and Better You – Photo by Helen Murray

If parts of A New and Better You border on insufferable, at least it’s a production that doesn’t do things by halves. But there’s something to be said about the sustained round of applause on stage that goes on for so long that even some in the audience who were initially amused by it started to get bored. There’s something to be said about such irritating persistence, which could be applied to all sorts of things in today’s world, from a nagging partner and/or dependent child to the phone calls (despite the Telephone Preference Service and ‘GDPR’) still coming through about payment protection insurance.

Words flash up on a large screen that dominates the rear of the performance space before the show starts, repeated so often it was difficult not to commit them to memory: “Everyone has a key around their neck / An expanse of desert / You sit in the centre of it.” The first point was enforced by front of house handing out keys to audience members to, um, wear around their necks. I couldn’t understand the second point, given overcrowding on the London Overground on my way to the show, and a full house at the theatre, though ‘desert’ was broadly relatable in a heatwave Britain had the privilege of experiencing at the time of writing.

There are shows where proceedings begin so merrily it is almost inevitable they will get darker later on – this one does the opposite. I’m not sure if it was aiming at a ‘triumph over adversity’ approach, but it begins with a barrage of negative comments from one person (Saffron Coomber) to another (Hannah Traylen). There are no character names given in the programme, or (as far as I can recall) in the dialogue, but what becomes the central character is bombarded with criticisms. In addition to disparaging observations about her physical appearance (“you stink” being one of the more quotable putdowns), she apparently wastes too much time on her phone “moving sweets around” (a reference, I believe, to ‘Candy Crush Saga’) and her “life has no meaning”.

The unsealing of boxes brought the Channel 4 Television show ‘Deal Or No Deal’ to mind; one showed a miniature version of a bedroom, another an overgrown garden. The long scenes were quite refreshing, bucking a noticeable trend in many new plays in which there are lots of short scenes flitting between different scenarios. Things are not made unnecessarily complicated here, and as comprehensively as Traylen’s central character is torn to proverbial shreds, along comes Alex Austin’s effervescent and deeply joyful character to sell the dream of a large and growing social media following and positivity with a capital P.

Traylen, it transpires, has been taken on by some sort of consultancy specialising in self-improvement – about as contradictory as asking for assistance in a bookshop in order to locate the self-help section – the vacuity of it all is fascinating but surprisingly frightening. I still say there is nothing wrong with wanting to become a better person, but there are meaningful ways to go about it; this production is a stark warning not to be so obsessed about oneself that one loses perspective of the wider world. An example: a long monologue about how Traylen will not let anyone stand in her way of achieving her goals goes as far as explicitly rejecting doing any acts of charity whatsoever or contributing in any way to anything that does not directly benefit her. She even commits to tax evasion.

Contemporary dance styles reflect the contemporary music that permeates the production, and it is well-choreographed. I personally couldn’t relate very much to what was going on, though a lot of the story seemed to resonate with the audience in general. A bold and formidable show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Look at those tracksuit bottoms. Look at that t-shirt. When was the last time those were washed? What’s that on the front? Is that sauce? What a clear example of what not to be.

This is a story of how things can be different. How you can make a change. Let’s start with your body. You can have that body you desire. That other people desire.

Get on that treadmill. Put the work in! Improve absolutely everything and become something magnificent. Something beautiful. Something expensive. Someone we respect.

CREDITS
Writer – Joe Harbot
Director – Cheryl Gallacher
Designer – Bethany Wells
Lighting Designer – Jess Bernberg
Composer and Sound Designer – Josh Anio Grigg
Movement Director – Seke Chimutengwende
Assistant Director and Chaperone – Lizzie Manwaring
Casting Director – Ruth O’Dowd CDG
Stage Manager on The Book – Katie Bachtler
Production Manager – Jack Greenyer

CAST: Alex Austin, Saffron Coomber, Hannah Traylen, Amber Cargill, Lara Ann Goldbourne and Ariana Williams

A NEW AND BETTER YOU
26 June — 14 July
https://theyardtheatre.co.uk/

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