Conceptual play: image via The Reviews Hub

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub and published here.

Devised by Contact Young Company with Common Wealth and Yussuf M’Rabty
Directed by Common Wealth
Contact Manchester
16th-19th December 2015

As each year draws to an end, we often find ourselves thinking about what we’d like to have done different, making resolutions and trying to become a “new me”. Maybe we want to earn more, go to the gym, learn a musical instrument, or generally become a better person. But what does that even mean?

To explore that question, Contact Young Company lead their audience of around 30 into a world they have created, a huge mind-map full of self-improvement buzzwords: “motivation”, “truth” and suchlike. We weave between the threads of the diagram and are encouraged to move around as the performance goes on.

This is just one of the ways in which How To Be Better differs from a traditional play. The action happens all around us and sometimes all the performers are speaking at once, each to a small group of audience members. At times, we are invited to take part in mini-workshops or performance coaching sessions. This interactive style keeps the audience entertained and intrigued, anticipating the next surprise. There’s an enjoyable variation to each successive section, with singing, dance, monologues, and sound created by musicians from Contact’s Level Up programme as well as the cast themselves. The young company all confidently engage their audience and put them at ease, despite lacking the comforting distance and darkness which is usually interposed between them.

While the diagrammatic set and the workshop style are interesting and engaging throughout the show, it’s a shame there isn’t more depth to some of the ideas that are shared in the company’s conceptual playground. Many members of the 13-strong company get only a moment or two to share their stories outside of the small-group settings, meaning that there’s a sense of each audience member missing out on more than they’ve witnessed. The stories that do feature in more detail are nevertheless brief, and a whole section on the influence of social media upon young people’s self-esteem is woefully shallow. Although it’s a fairly enjoyable evening and many of the ideas are nifty, taken together they give a sense that substance has been sacrificed to style.

Star rating: **.5 Style over substance