Reviews Edinburgh Published 16 August 2014

Pretty Ugly

Forest Fringe ⋄ 5th-10th August 2014

21st century girlhood.

Alice Saville

There can’t be many performers at the Forest Fringe who get puff pieces in the Daily Mail. GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s shit-smearing knickerless show tunes in Number 1, The Plaza probably wouldn’t. But Louise Orwin’s performance is an angry evocation and interrogation of the Fail calls the  “shocking new trend” of YouTube videos where teenage girls place themselves at the mercy of thousands of sadistic, supportive, or downright paedophilic commentors.

She doesn’t find much to say in favour of these videos and their teenage narrators’ formulaic plea of “am I pretty or am I ugly,” meaning that the performance holds depressingly few surprises for anyone who’s spent too much time reading below the line, let alone broached 4Chan. Instead, much of her show’s power comes from her painfully accurate replication of the globalised aesthetic of 21st century girlhood.

Writhing on her back in constant motion facilitated by pink roller skates, Orwin lip-syncs to Britney Spears in a heavily sexualised private bedroom performance just for her, her webcam, and the thousands of faceless viewers who believe in the teenage alter ego she’s bringing into the world. Her three pouting personas catfish, or rather kittenfish, the YouTube commentariat into exposing its demographics. This unsavoury pie chart is three-quarters grown men, and the poisonous, abusive portion of them are far less dangerous then the smaller, honeyed slice who just want to be her friend.

Orwin movingly plays out the story of her interactions with one such “friend” in a companionably childish circle of Sylvanian Families – her angry, neon-haired trolls isolated from her confidences. But behind her, the Big Brother eye of a multimedia screen makes his increasingly disturbing private messages huge and real.  At other times, the screen becomes a shiny nail-polish reflection of her cyber hyper adolescent monologues. Orwin unleashes beautifully observed Joycean torrents of manic insecurity unpunctuated by self-awareness or, well, punctuation.

Orwin inhabits her teenage characters so completely that she’s consumed with their obsessions and fears, and often incredibly nasty abuse they’re bombarded with. When she reassures us she’s a 27 year old performance artist it feels like she’s reassuring herself, too. This investment and its emotional toll leads her into moments of powerful fury at the “totally fucked” world that, created by the distorted computer screen reflection of the male gaze, makes adolescent girls its focus.

But the point where Orwin starts to express her anger is where her performance, and its carefully constructed moral neutrality, starts to pixellate.  Part of what makes this show so exciting and vital is its reality as a social experiment. But Orwin goes beyond projecting public domain material like Youtube videos and comments to include her private conversations and interactions. The simplistic section where she goes on ChatRoulette to spew back some of the criticism she received online to internet strangers feels particularly dodgy; men assigned to video chat to a teenage girl through a randomising algorithm are cast as de facto paedophiles, and can only respond with bafflement. Her attempts to make the audience complicit in her abuse feel similarly two-bit, equating our compulsory public voting with her commenters’ anonymous attacks.

Orwin’s performance is patterned with Pretty/Ugly videos from real teenage girls – alone or in a desperate lip-syncing chorus. She talks movingly about the collision between childhood openness and unselfconsciousness and their adolescent polar opposites. But in being so keen to wrestle down her unseen male adversaries, the plastic troll dolls on stage become so many straw men for her to knock down. And she supports teenage girls, without trying to dismantle the whole grim machinery of commercialised make-up tutorials and anonymous forums and music videos that both support and profit from their desperate need to feel better about themselves. Instead, this is a fascinatingly accurate performance of their artful recreations of both womanhood and childhood, as they assemble clippings from manga to John Hughes films, from My Little Pony to Katie Perry, to make a poisoned fanzine to the all-importance and omnipotence of Pretty.


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Pretty Ugly Show Info

Cast includes Louise Orwin


Running Time 60 minutes



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