‘Why did I? Oh God, why did I?” We can all get embarrassed recalling our adolescent lives: Emily Wilson sings this great big cringe of a song to a backdrop of videos, images and social media output immortalising the naive enthusiasms of her teenage self. But worse, far worse, is to come. Wilson’s show is about starring on The X Factor in the US when she was 15. It did not go well. Then it did. Then it didn’t again. Teenage Emily was wrung out and tossed aside. Eleven years on, she’s here to face down those demons, armed only with archive footage, laughter and song.
It’s hard to imagine anyone not being gripped by Wilson’s tale, combining as it does several modern obsessions – celebrity, abusive behaviour, kids on social media – and adding a dash of redemption for good measure. “Growing up, all I ever wanted was to be famous,” says Wilson, which makes her easy prey when Simon Cowell’s star-making juggernaut rolls into her New Jersey town. With best friend Austin (together they are AusEm – geddit?), Wilson graduates via auditions and “boot camp” to The X Factor proper. But not before she’s been humiliated on national TV and forced to sunder her singing duo in favour of a naffer outfit entirely.
To anyone still in these TV shows’ thrall, Wilson offers a useful corrective. On this evidence, they’re rigged, and reckless with the real lives of the wannabes they dazzle then discard. Wilson emerges deeply scarred, and you can see why – at least on the strength of her first trial by Cowell and co, which is horrifying. (She doesn’t acknowledge as much, but her second rejection is much less brutal.) Intertwining her X Factor tale with contemporary diary entries (all crushes, prayers and inherited Republican prejudice), Wilson shows us the soil in which personal criticism from her celebrity judges took such deep root.
Some might find Wilson’s ending to this tale of dreams dashed, as the grownup pays direct tribute to her plucky teenage self, a little schmaltzy. But it pierced my sentimental heart. Adult Wilson deserves tribute, too, for making of this emotionally bruising rite of passage a startling, defiant and funny hour of theatre.
Emily Wilson: Fixed is at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, until 29 August.