Contact Young Actors Company see out this year with Christmas themed production How To Be Better. Devised with and directed by Common Wealth, it’s an interactive promenade piece that strongly resembles their highly successful show from earlier this year, Shrine of Everyday Things.
Rather than filing into the auditorium and sitting in rows, the audience are escorted into the space by cast members. Transformed into a three-dimensional “mind map” by large wooden frames, ropes and upturned crates painted with words such as “truth” and “motivation,” stage and seating become one fluid space.
The cast move around the space, discussing with each small group of audience members about how they – or the world – could be better. Occasionally one performer will air their views to the entire audience. The whole thing feels very honest and personal, with cast members identifying themselves by their real names. The downside to this kind of interaction is that it can get uncomfortable. Learning and performing a dance routine, writing down self-improvement advice for the cast to read out and being put on the spot for inspirational quotes could be off-putting for more reserved audience members, but as the piece makes clear, self-improvement and introspection are not easy.
Sound plays an important role in the production, with the desk prominent in the midst of the space. Bongos are used to cue the end of each section, recorded music backgrounds dance and movement, and one of the performers delivers her monologue in song while playing the guitar. Microphones emphasise certain moments, most effectively when one performer adopts the negative voice of self-doubt. Occasionally there is too much going on at once and the cast have issues making themselves heard, which is a shame because the piece’s central concept is interesting and well covered.
As one performer observes, the pressure on young people to be better/smarter/greener/prettier already existent through parents, schools and the government is doubled by the omnipresent social media. It’s also particularly relevant to December, when we reflect on the past and make plans for the year ahead. The New Year’s Eve countdown – complete with confetti thrown by the audience – may be playful, but the final message to make resolutions and act on them now is a serious one.
Thanks to clever staging and strong, honest performances, How To Be Better is a personal, intimate experience befitting its subject matter. It will make you think. It will make you want to be better.