Reviews Manchester Published 22 December 2015

How to Be Better

Contact Theatre ⋄ 16th-19th December 2015

A curated collage of honesty.

James Varney
Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

It’s that time of year again! Oh boy! What scrapes have we gotten ourselves into? How many of those resolutions we made in January did we keep? One? One and a half, maybe? Have we lived up to expectations? Have we changed even a little bit? Are we any closer to being functioning human beings?

To pin the idea down, New Year’s resolutions are kind of horrid. The thought that we’re all automatically deficient to the extent we have to ritually give ourselves rules for the next year (which we most likely expect to break anyway) seems pretty cynical when you look at it. Contact Young Company’s last show, Under the Covers, dissected the pressures young people find themselves under when faced with the twisted way society teaches us sexuality. How To Be Better takes a similar look at self-betterment and the result is another slew of reasons to be amazed anyone ever ends up well-adjusted at all.

‘Why do we strive to be better at this time of the year?’ the programme asks. And the company, directed by Evie Manning and Rhiannon White from Common Wealth, answer in their own roundabout, wholly earnest way. Like Under the Covers, there’s a sense that, more than being a piece of theatre, How To Be Better is a sort of curated collage of honesty. Again, I’m amazed at the potential that is unlocked when young people are simply given space to speak and share. There’s something broader in How To Be Better, as if this piece is only the start of a series of questions and personal journeys the company are about to embark on. Much of the content deals with the future, in the face of the pasts and presents that have conspired to make us who we are.

This show’s identity is that of its company – in parts still forming, in parts naïve, but always open to liveness and chance. Structurally, I think this show inherits a lot from the internet. We are invited into the space in small groups, each led by a different performer, until we are sat variously on the stage, in the seating, on the floor, of Contact’s Space 1. With a giant mind map forming the set, we have small, intimate conversations, with the performers rotating around the small groups, with music playing, with the occasional speaker amplified. Everyone is unambiguously invited to be who they are. There’s a multiplicity in the room that you can’t possibly experience all of. Then, as if switching tabs, one performance becomes the focus point, then switches to another, then another, then we’re in small groups again, tossing confetti, or sharing truths with strangers.

We learn about the company’s plans for the future. The things about themselves they feel are holding them back. The things beyond themselves they blame for their sense of powerlessness. We learn about their remedies, about the small and private battles they wage with the world, and, together, we become part of their attempts to reach out and connect, in order to change the world and their position in it.

Again, like the internet, the centre of this piece is what you make of it, whether the company, the concept, or the content. There’s a lot of the Buzzfeed listicle about this play: ‘13 True Accounts Of Youths Under Pressure’. But where sitting scrolling through Twitter at three in the morning leaves you (me) feeling totally isolated, here you become part of a network; you meet people, and you share your own stories and experiences alongside theirs. The catharsis that listicles and separation lack is provided in How To Be Better, in shared human experience. Perhaps CYC’s answer to self-betterment is not in providing a method toward seeking fulfilment, but the importance of sharing that search with others.


James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

How to Be Better Show Info

Produced by Contact Young Company

Directed by Common Wealth



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