Opening on a convincingly era-respecting late ‘70s set, the play ‘Better Yesterday’ begins with the troubled couple Sylvia & Harold, walking back into their minimalistic multi-functioning front-room following their evening show of ‘Macbeth’ together. The lighting is minimal and mellow, just like the set, but this brings across an ambience and intimacy suitable for such a play. Prop usage is impressive—especially the rifle which features later in the play—the viewer really gets a sense of the stereotypically idyllic home-setting for the era. But the first element that undoubtedly strikes the viewer beyond set, as the characters walk in, is their strangely ambiguous clothing. Whilst generally conforming to the garb of the times; something about Sylvia’s (Katie Peachey’s) shoes is peculiarly jarring.
However, costumes and slightly dissonant footwear aside, the chemistry between the actors is undeniable—most especially during the few intimate scenes which take place. Whilst, perhaps, Murray Whitaker’s performance at times lacks the realistic depth one would imagine his character demands, his performance is generally convincing. Still, it has to be observed that there is something peculiarly wooden (or excessively performative) about his portrayal of Harold, for some parts—or perhaps this is intended (playing into the Olivier-esque performative aspect of his character). But, as the play winds on and Whitaker descends into Harold’s dwindling state of insanity the viewer must applaud his later performance. The reminiscing scene at the kitchen table in particular highlights Whitaker’s skill very effectively: the viewer must surely allow themselves to be impressed by that blank, emotionally distant stare into the audience as Harold recounts all the nitty gritty details of what he dislikes about his wife, Sylvia. Conversely, but equally titillating, Whitaker’s portrayals of various scenes from the Golden Age of Cinema (including his Bogart portrayal) are rather amusingly well done. These comical impressions, as well as frequent reference to contemporary events (such as Elvis’ death, and the hippie subculture) really help ground the play in its intended setting. The superb Katie Peachey playing Sylvia is truly dynamite. Her execution of the strong-willed, but inwardly troubled actress and wife in the spotlight is very commendable. From facial expressions to body language, to voice intonation—one can really believe her to be what she non-verbally claims: a love-lorn, searching and confused woman desperate to speak out, yet also to keep the silence on her turmoil.
The viewer must assent that the director and playwright Anna Stephen does a fantastic job of blending various sensitive issues such as those of domestic violence, suicide, abortion, infidelity, drug-use alongside the jarringly jovial, light-hearted tone vaguely reminiscent of something like Victoria Wood. The play really does deserve the cute moniker ‘tragicomedy’, for this reason. Alongside this, Stephen must be praised for the clever way in which she uses Macbeth as a focal reference between the couple. The two plays seem to run on a dynamic parallel, wherein the viewer can make subtle links between the Lady Macbeth-esque characterisation of Sylvia; and the ultimately vulnerable, though outwardly hard-faced and standoffish characterisation of Harold (as a Macbeth parallel). The brilliant dynamic is just subtle enough not to be too brazen and obnoxious in the face of Better Yesterday—an asset which is never very easily attained in a play which covers such intense subject-matter in this style. The Macbeth dynamic also brings to mind a Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier-styled complex (who ironically both starred in an unfinished version of Macbeth) which does come through a lot within the characters of Sylvia and Harold. Credit ultimately has to be given to the actors , and to Stephen, for creating and bringing to life such a nuanced play and sustaining the plot despite there being only two characters.
The most important takeaway of Better Yesterday though, is ultimately the idea of how the voyeuristic public eye can be damaging to a relationship. It is a tale of how such an intensely invigorating spark can often tighten like a vice, transforming into a suffocating hold, before unraveling into a descent of disorderly chaos and heartbreak. The turn of tables towards the end as Harold’s illness is revealed, and Sylvia’s infidelity is brought to light, is an unexpected touch to the play that the viewer may not have envisioned until the very last moment. Sequestered beneath this heavy-barrelled message, is all in all also the very simplistic (but exceptionally poignant) idea that sometimes in life, one finds that everything was ‘better yesterday’. Harold is the one to eventually use this titular phrase for the first time throughout the play, just before the lights go out on a touching but wistful scene of the couple entwined in an embrace.