This is a piece of theatre devised, written and presented by 13 members of Contact Young Company; an ensemble of not just actors, but singers, musicians, dancers, poets etc who are all under the age of 25, and come together to create professional shows in collaboration with existing renowned artistes and companies. For this particular production they collaborated with Common Wealth. (Evie Manning and Rhiannon White).

It is not often that I am unsure of what and how to write, but this piece has really stumped me. There are two huge issues at stake here which make it very difficult for me to put my ideas and thoughts in order. I might ramble a bit, so I'll do my best to be coherent!

The first of these is the actual style of presentation.

Very bravely daring to go where no play has ever gone before, this is not theatre nor is it a play in any conventional sense of either word. In fact I am struggling to find an all-inclusive word for the type of theatre this is. But what it is, is most certainly different and challenging, including us and entertaining us all at the same time. The entire main theatre of The Contact had been transformed into what one actress described as a spider's web concept. In the centre of the space, hanging from the ceiling and looming large over the auditorium was a wooden box with the words BETTER YOURSELF written within. Stemming from this and attached by long ropes were what can loosely be described as 'booths', scattered all over the theatre - on the stage and placed at various levels over the raised seating. These 'booths' were bare open wooden structures all having words or phrases written on them, such as DOUBT, GRATITUDE, etc. In one of them, the most centrally located, was the sound engineer who also banged rhythms on a drum at various points throughout.

As we gathered outside the entrance to the theatre actors would appear individually and take us through into the space in groups of three. From there the performance was a complete mixture of small group discussions, (one actor with small groups of audience), ensemble pieces which seemed to happen in the spirit of flash mobs, solo cri-du-coeurs from various actors, and group activities in which the audience were invited to participate. We moved around the theatre just as much as the actors did and with the intermingling between performer and audience blurring the traditional boundaries made one really feel that by the end of the presentation you had been talking to real people; people with feelings and emotions and concerns just like our own, and it was not an 'us-and-them' situation which can all too easily happen when trying to merge audience and performer.

This ease and accessibility though was set up right from the start. Having only three audience members and one actor chat with us on a very familiar and down-to-earth basis, and actually want us to talk back and have a 4-way discussion was a most brilliant idea. I doubt very much that the audience would have reacted so positively and been so easy to comply with the activities and participatory sections had we not been put so very much at our ease at the start.

The second issue concerns the content of the presentation.

Given the starting phrase, 'How to be better', the company improvised and devised their own thoughts and ideas over several weeks of rehearsal culminating in the performance I saw last night. An interesting but rather over-ambitious idea I think. Interesting because the actors did not take on characters, but they were themselves completely for the whole performance and voiced their own personal feelings and suggestions. (eg: redirect food waste into large community kitchens for the homeless / look after old people better / have regular 'truth-telling' sessions free from animosity and reproach etc). But where this idea fell down, for me at least, was that no-one had thought to analyse exactly what was meant by the word, 'better'. Everyone, director included, had fallen very neatly into the trap of believing that betterment comes from within, and that having more 'Christian values' or being more charitable, or thinking about others more etc is what the word better means. This is the common viewpoint held by our society, and therefore, in playing with those thoughts, they were simply playing to the masses and not addressing the issue of what better actually is, and how therefore to strive to be it. The presentation would have been far more challenging and daring if the word 'better' had been broken down and analysed. Is 'better' synonymous with 'progress' / 'humility' / 'change' etc? What the actors do however is deliver a very angry and impassioned tirade against what we have institutionalised now in our 21st century world, and make very broad sweeping umbrella-statements such as, "The world would be a better place if we all retained our capacity to care.", and "Is the search for betterment making us worse?", and "Embrace your past - live for now!" without really thinking themselves what each of these statements means and certainly without giving the audience time or chance to react to any of them.


How To Be Better is unconventional in many ways, and it was an all-encompassing experience. Having to quickly change from one mood to another, from being part of a discussion group to witnessing a monologue; from listening to a guitarist singing her own composition, to joining in with a dance class, made it a fast-moving and very entertaining way to spend an hour or so. - but I'm not so sure that that is what it should have been... it should have been a rather uncomfortable way to spend an hour or two and you should have left the theatre really thinking how you as a human can change and make a difference and what 'change' and what 'better' means to you as an individual. The piece did not in any way do this, which is a pity. It was all too neat and tidy and tied up with a bow! A word of warning too for the traditional theatre-goers. You can sit on a seat and just simply watch if you wish, but by not participating you will not have the full experience, and everyone who enters the space will have a completely different experience depending on who they talk to and where they go within it.

Director, Common Wealth, has brought together all the company's ideas and laid them out bare for the audience to listen to, inviting us too to share our ideas on how to be better. It was a very interesting and exciting premise which failed to live up to it's lofty and noble expectations. It started very well, and brought each audience member very gently into the participation so necessary for this production to succeed; and the culmination of all the audience's ideas being read out at the end like a roll call also worked surprisingly effectively. Further, it is great credit to this company of 13 performers (only some of whom I actually "interfaced" with) to be able to take on such a liberating and difficult challenge as this. Actors normally hide behind character, mask, script or footlights, and here there was none of this. Just people, telling real stories, and being themselves!

So, in summing-up, it was an enjoyable experience certainly, and the performers' commitment and energy palpable. I really liked the design and the premise, but the constant drum banging irritated, and the discussion and research into the topic was very one-sided and just didn't go far enough.

Reviewer: Mark Dee

Reviewed: 16th December 2015