Conditionals such as ‘if you were healthier’, ‘if you looked better’, and ‘if you were memorable’ are like carrots that dangle in front of us, teasing us into action. Perpetuated by capitalist models and intensified by social media, they spur on plans of self-improvement in the aim of achieving those mysterious yet tantalizing concepts of happiness and success (even while both are always left notably vague). They act like mantras you’re supposed to say to yourself at the gym: little reminders of what you lack, and little nods to what you could become. A new and better you.
In response to a world where these mantras feel ubiquitous, Joe Harbot’s A New and Better You is a playful yet cutting satire about the world of self-improvement and social media. It’s not a surprising take on the subject, and indeed, the world in question does seem rife for satire. The story is one easily found in a matter of clicks on either Twitter, Youtube, or Instagram: a seemingly ‘aimless’ woman (Hannah Treylan) with no clear ambition is spurred into improving herself and she becomes an internet sensation and an example for the rest of us.
Yet with Harbot’s surreal script, and Cheryl Gallacher’s shrewd and ominous direction, A New and Better You inverts and challenges narratives of success, and asks what (or even who) is writing these narratives. Traylen’s character is guided by two mentors – a self-help guru played by Saffron Coomber and PR expert Alex Austin. While Traylen stays center stage within a diamond-shaped sandbox, Austin and Coomber give drawn out monologues full of glossy advice, accompanied by shiny but vacant smiles and the occasional dance break. The ensemble work excellently to cultivate an atmosphere of glassy discomfort amidst hollow enthusiasm. It’s entrancing to watch, and makes for an uncanny encounter with an ever-present and pervasive phenomenon.
There’s a smart and intriguing nod to gameplay as well. Traylen finds keys in the sand and unlocks chests to reveal new levels of herself. It’s as if self-betterment is a straightforward set of challenges culminating in a triumphant ending (so long as one passes each level). An overarching feeling of grand design is evoked and ultimately raises questions not only about who the designer might be, but what the designer might want.
Some choices are less effective. All audience members are given a necklace with a key, but their relationship to this new piece of jewellery and what it signifies is never fully articulated. And while repetitive dance and exercise sequences parallel the redundant din of jargon used in self-improvement threads, both these sequences and the long monologues can feel a little unchanging.
But that’s also the point. After everything is said and done, what has changed? The ensemble cultivate an atmosphere of glassy discomfort amidst hollow enthusiasm. Empty, unsettling, and entrancing to watch, A New and Better You is an uncanny encounter with a pervasive phenomenon.
A New and Better You is on at The Yard until 14 July 2018. Click here for more details.