You're a nobody. Your life is meaningless. You're about as significant as the stain on your t-shirt. How do you turn your life around? And what happens when you do?
This is the departure point for Joe Harbot's A New And Better You, the latest in a long line of solidly enthralling shows over at Hackney's Yard Theatre. Directed by Cheryl Gallacher, we watch over the course of 80 minutes as a young woman goes from down-and-out deadbeat into up-and-coming certified brand icon, the complete product of a wellness culture.
Because, according to Harbot's script, in the modern day just because you aren't sick doesn't mean you're well. Wellness is an idea, a rhythm of life. It involves self-belief, structured exercise, and a healthy online presence. Lifestyle gurus (here portrayed by Saffron Coomber) and social media experts (an incessantly funny Alex Austin) can transform anyone, in this case Hannah Traylen, into a creature of comfort, success and power. All it takes is a carefully choreographed regimen and routine.
But at what cost? The text is laden with platitudes, satisfying lines that mean little: "nothing is promised", "love isn't unconditional", "nobody owes you any favours" Traylen is told. Our late-20-something aspires to be "as fluid as water", "as high as the mountain air". Her entire value system is based on the sort of "motivational quotes of the day" you read when you go on Forbes or log into your computer. She wants to "feel herself expanding". And expand she does – as she moves from slob to social media influencer, the capitalist jargon seeps into her lines – by the end, she's left promoting coconut water ("it's mother nature's sports drink").
Wellness, for Harbot, is only the smallest of steps from a commercialised world. Narcissism pays a pretty penny these days.
In a show so obsessed with the meaningless triviality of so much of modern culture, Gallacher has a tough task preventing the piece feeling too repetitive, or, well, trivial. But she deftly handles the text, contrasting bouncy dance numbers with moments of Traylen standing in awkward stillness. Surreality adds to the tone perfectly – a garish laser pointer examines Traylen's's thighs, bite-sized bedrooms are housed within small boxes, Coomber and Austin conduct a lengthy clapping routine. There's also stellar work from lighting designer Jess Bernberg, every passing beat feeling distinctly different from the last, through to a claustrophobic, final sense of aimlessness at the close.
Traylen embodies her physical transformation well – going from sluggard to symbol through to garish satirical figure, delivering a Ted-talk style book launch pitch like a clean-cut robotic humanoid – something you'd find in Westworld.
It's a grim, unsettling yet all too familiar examination of the abject meaninglessness that rests at the heart of our Instagram-filled, image-orientated society. Startlingly watchable and well-wrought, Harbot makes a solid argument through a meticulous text and clear plotting. You leave the show asking a simple question: is it better to be seen as nothing but feel something, or be seen as something but feel nothing?