“Make this a transformation story,” a social media expert demands of a young fitness star at the Yard Theatre this summer. “Success stories are aspirational,” he reinforces as the young woman tries to discover her “true” self. Watching Joe Harbot’s unusual play is like spending an hour and a half on Instagram waiting for inspiration to strike. Directed by Cheryl Gallacher the play tackles deeply relevant subjects with a touch of magic that only the theatre can bring.
Upon arrival every member of the audience is given a key on a piece of scratchy string to wear around their neck, a constant reminder that there is an ever-present risk of audience participation. The stage itself is a sandpit. The malleable setting is perfect for this bizarre show, which sees Hannah Traylen play a young woman with a very relatable life that she’s depressingly unhappy with, before she “transforms” herself into an influencer. The mesmerising (and slightly terrifying) Saffron Coomber, the perfectly bonkers Alex Austin and a fascinating young girl played alternatively by Amber Cargill, Lara-Ann Goldbourne and Ariana Williams join Traylen on stage.
The play changes repeatedly and rapidly from a drama to a reality game show, a workout class led by an eight year old to a satirical treasure hunt. For reasons unknown, it even descends into a moment of clapping lunacy. There are lots of things in this play that get laughs, but more out of discomfort that comedy genius. What is on the mark, however, is its analysis and satire of brand deals so-called influencers take on after their “transformations.” Getting there on hard graft, they then sell-out on brand partnerships and affiliate pacts. A New and Better You also offers an interesting exploration of how this constant obsession with appearance, both digital and physical, can impact intimacy in romantic and sexual relationships.
Credit where credit is due, Bethany Wells’ outstanding design of the sandpit set and enchanting prop boxes in combination with Josh Anio Grigg’s music and Jess Bernberg’s sound and lighting design giving this curious production a stunning setting. While the dance breaks often feel utterly random, they’re made entertaining by Seke Chimutengwende’s choreography and the casts’ unbreakable dedication.
There is something funny about this play but perhaps not in the ways the cast and crew intended. Maybe it’s supposed to leave you feeling empowered and concerned, rather than confused, but one thing’s for sure, A New and Better You is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
A New and Better You is playing The Yard Theatre until 14 July 2018
Photo: Helen Murray