“Autumn, 1977. Harold and Sylvia, celebrated actors, return home from yet another performance of Macbeth. The explosive events of the night unfold in real time as the couple’s exchange swings from kittenish to cruel, teasing to torturous. A bitter tragicomedy of two broken people, their feverish marriage and the parasitic public and press, Better Yesterday explores what happens when love becomes self-destructive.”
So reads the description on the Oxford Playhouse page advertising Better Yesterday, a play written and directed by Anna Stephen. On its opening night, the show didn’t disappoint in its depiction of a destructive marriage.
The play is set in the kitchen and living room of married couple Harold (Murray Whitaker) and Sylvia (Katie Peachey). After a whirlwind romance and three years of marriage, the kinks in their actor’s armour have begun to show. The characters constantly switching in and out of lines from plays they’ve appeared in before gives the play a unique referential style and emphasises their dramatic pasts, individually and as a couple.
Whitaker and Peachey’s chemistry is the glue which holds the show together. Their ability to play off of each other’s constantly shifting emotional states makes them a thrill to watch, to the point that the brief moments where one actor is offstage feel empty without the couple’s electricity. They have a great dynamic and deliver Stephen’s often poetic dialogue naturally. Harold’s flagship response to the couple’s woes, that “we learn from what happened”, feels freshly applicable to their problems every time it is uttered.
Better Yesterday’s set design features only the necessities – the kitchen table the couple argue at, the bottle of ‘tap water’, the telephone which rings three times throughout the play and is answered only once – but aptly transports you into the nexus of the couple’s complicated home life. Their fancy living room chairs, kept separate by an ever-glowing fireplace, make a statement about the nature of Harold and Sylvia’s marriage before the actors first appear. Throughout the play, they spend far more time separated (one standing while the other sits, one in the kitchen, the other in the living room) than together. Even the 70s furniture feels as though it’s on edge, readily divided into infinite halves.
The open-plan stage still effectively communicates the claustrophobia of the couple’s situation. Whitaker frequently moves to the edge of the stage to look into the distance or stare at a wall in contemplation. Their home feels lived in, like they really have been there for years. Both characters’ repeated wishes to go outside and get some fresh air remain unfulfilled. The yellowish lighting which sprawls across the stage feels inescapable. Every element of the production signifies the couple’s discomfort and frustration with their lives.
Doom and gloom don’t completely dominate the play, however. There are plenty of awkward jokes or puns peppered throughout the script which remind the audience of Harold and Sylvia’s humanity. Whether they laugh or cry, kiss or fight, their feelings are transient and Stephen keeps the audience on their toes with constant changes in tone or intensity.
Better Yesterday was a thrilling and emotive deconstruction of a complicated celebrity marriage backed by strong performances from its cast and effective stagecraft. Its seventy-minute runtime seems to whizz by as the audience remain on the edge of their seats from beginning to end. It’s a slowly unravelling tragedy which makes you think about the human experience and the role of actors within that experience. When Harold asks Sylvia if she feels like they’re constantly being watched, it’s far from just a metafictional flourish.
Written and directed by Anna Stephen
Produced by Hetty Nicholls
Harold played by Murray Whitaker
Sylvia played by Katie Peachey
Set design by Mitra Stainsbury