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Pretty Ugly, Camden People’s Theatre – Review

Written and performed by Louise Orwin

★★★★ 
Pros: The serious and contemporary subject matter that affects all of us. 
Cons: The show dragged at times, becoming repetitive and overstating points. 
Our Verdict: A timely, powerful performance exploring the brutal digital world of teenage girls. 
Courtesy of Louise Orwin
The question “am I pretty or am I ugly?” is the premise of Louise Orwin’s Pretty Ugly, which explores a disturbing online trend in which teenage girls post videos and photos of themselves on the internet, asking the faceless public to rate their outside appearances. Orwin spent a year researching this scene by creating the three alter egos Amanda, Becky and Baby who masquerade as teenage girls desperate for validation from strangers. This sounds awful enough, but what was even more disconcerting was the reaction from the digital world – Orwin’s fake email accounts were flooded with comments, mostly nasty, invitations for sexual encounters (the three imitation teenagers were supposed to be 15 years old) and sometimes messages of the nature of “keep your chin up, don’t mind them”. 
Orwin presents these findings in Pretty Ugly, which ran as part of the Festival of Feminism Calm Down, Dear at the Camden People’s Theatre. While parts of the play were a bit blunt and overstated, I thought that the performance was powerful and did the serious topic justice. The format was unconventional – Orwin was the sole person on the stage (except for the occasional audience member), and switched between being herself, and acting a teenager. This made the experience somewhat uncanny, and cleverly reflected Orwin’s experience during her research, when she could not help but feel personally threatened while acting as Amanda, Becky and Baby. It is not easy to bring across such a weighty topic in a one-woman show, but Orwin effectively used props such as a smartphone camera, dolls, audience members and a lavish helping of Britney Spears’ music to give the play more edge and impact. 
It begins with a underage girl in heavy make-up, a blonde wig and roller-skates paired with a skimpy pink dress, lounging on the floor and taking a video of herself singing along to Baby One More Time. She then proceeds to roll around haplessly on the skates, desperately trying to strike seductive poses. This was probably my least favourite part of the play, resorting to an overemphasised version of a teenage girl that wasn’t entirely necessary. It quickly improves, however. We are told about the inappropriate love story between Bobby and Baby; Baby played by an audience member, Bobby by Orwin. Bobby tells Baby that she shouldn’t mind the mean comments about her nose on the web, that he was bullied in school as well, and that he understands her. He then tells her she’s beautiful, and that she’d make him very happy if she sent him some more photos. Preferably topless. It turns out that Bobby is a 46 year old real man, and that he lives in the States. And there are thousands of men like him, perusing the internet on the hunt for young and vulnerable girls. 
While the subject matter is grim, the performance does have its lighter moments. I had to laugh when we’re shown how Amanda, Becky and Baby rebel and begin insulting their male conversationalists (“I think you’re disgusting. You’re a 3/10.”) – until I remembered that these were real men, and I wondered if the experiment was taken too far. Pretty Ugly made me grateful that the internet was not as omnipresent when I was a teenager. It also made me think with horror of my own future children’s interaction with the web. Generation YouTube might have the world at their fingertips, but that world can be cruel, unpredictable, and ultimately destructive. 
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below! 

Pretty Ugly runs at Camden People’s Theatre until 9th November 2013. 
Box Office: 08444 77 1000 or book online at http://www.cptheatre.co.uk/

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