A young woman stands before us, drab and grey; another deconstructs the first’s appearance, from the stained T-shirt to the ‘poorly maintained’ genitals, with shrill, patronising perkiness. She’s some kind of lifestyle guru, and has no sympathy for the weak.
The young woman starts her own, equally long, list of apologies for her inadequacy, and it looks like we might be in for a deconstruction of how the self-improvement industry is based on a great lie promoting desperate consumption in pursuit of unattainable perfection.
Yet somehow, after a brief exercise montage, she does manage total transformation. And with the help of fake and fawning social media experts, publishers, and journalists, she’s soon flogging lifestyle tomes about how she did it, and having hot, narcissistic, empty sex.
‘A New and Better You’ basically boils down to 85 minutes of aspirational phrases: playwright Joe Harbot has stitched together motivational sloganeering, corporate jargon and the language of advertising into interminable, crushing litanies.
He’s got a sharp ear for it. But that’s all ‘A New and Better You’ has, really; it certainly doesn’t offer much plot or character. Fine, if you’re using repetition and abstraction to make a devastating point – but this barely gets beyond parroting into parody.
The take-home message – focusing on outer appearance will lead to an inner life as arid as the sandpit the play is staged in – is so obvious it barely needs saying. Or, if worth repeating, it certainly needs further excavating or elaborating upon than in this sneeringly basic look at Instagram culture.
The cast do exactly what’s required, with humour and precision; playing various smiling gurus, Saffron Coomber has a faintly terrifying glazed mania and Alex Austin is superbly oily and suggestive.
Director Cheryl Gallacher cuts through the static tedium of the speeches with occasional stylish interventions: dance sequences, an insanely over-extended round of applause, a life coach being played (impeccably) by a very young child. But the dramaturgical purpose of many such choices remains opaque.
If the play lacks depth, it is at least pretty. Jess Bernberg’s glowing, neon lighting helps delineate scenes and add atmosphere, as does Josh Anio Grigg’s hyper-synthetic sound design, flirting with glossy electro-pop as well as video game and game-show trills. Bethany Wells’ design features projected emojis; the consultant characters wear Millennial pink.
These aesthetic choices suit the show’s send-up of carefully curated brand management. But there’s something ironic about the fact that the shiny surfaces are the best thing about a critique of our obsession with shiny surfaces.