When DryWrite co-Artistic Director Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote Fleabag back in 2013, it needed to be crowd funded in order for it to be premiered at that year’s Edinburgh Festival. It is now repaying the favour by being used to raise needy funds for charities dedicated to supporting those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Viewers are asked to donate between £4 and £250 to rent the filmed version of the show and it will, no doubt, attract many to do so having been disappointed in getting hold of tickets when it was revived onstage in London last year for just 30 performances.
Being one of those very people, I approached the streamed version with a high degree of anticipation. While somewhat of a fan of the first TV series (not so much the second) I can’t saw I ever viewed Fleabag with quite the same fervour as so many others. Yes, it was filthily funny, yes it was fresh, but I did tend to find its arch knowingness a little grating. I was therefore gratified that I actually found the stage version more to my liking. Gone was the tedious need for others to interpret Waller-Bridge’s characters and razor sharp dialogue as this extended monologue allowed for the actor/writer to do everything herself. In essence, I found I had the same reaction as to when I saw Pauline Collins in both the theatre and cinema versions of Shirley Valentine. In both instances, the one woman play was/is far superior.
The storyline will be familiar to anyone who saw the series and includes many of the famous moments including taking her top off at the job interview, the on-off relationship with her semi-permanent boyfriend, attending the feminist lecture with her sister and the late night visits to her father. Largely absent, however, is the relationship with her godmother and there are definitely no sexy priests. Never one to hold back on an opinion, Fleabag herself seemed rather more casually cruel than in the TV version which perhaps gave her a harsher, less sympathetic demeanour … though I’ve never been sure whether we are actually supposed to sympathise with a woman who so clearly demonstrates such a level of disgust towards her fellow humans. And, yes, I know, that’s all supposed to mask a sense of self-loathing with which we can empathise, but she is equally responsible for the misery of others.
The show is very simply performed in the most minimalist of settings with Waller-Bridge dressed strikingly in red and black. For much of the time she perches on a stool and tells her story like a latter-day Dave Allen though, of course, far more foul-mouthed. This works very well on a TV screen especially in some of the more intimate moments. I did wonder how many of the original audience (who had paid as much as £600 per ticket on resale sites) were enjoying themselves quite so vocally because they felt they had to justify the vast expense they had gone to. The first half, particularly, was greeted with gales of laughter which sometimes sounded false – though in the second, more sobering section reactions seemed to have a greater ring of truth about them.
But I’m not here to review the audience. The burning question is, was Phoebe Waller-Bridge any good? Yes…mostly. Indeed, she was very good…mostly. As a writer, the script is well structured with an excellent mix of the hilarious and the heart rending and the various sections give us a deep insight into the soul of this very troubled woman. As a performer Waller-Bridge gives excellent value and breathes life into her roster of grotesques. She knows how to time an anecdote and how to land a punchline with maximum effect and seems absolutely fearless in terms of engaging with an audience. She inhabits the character as if it were a second skin – as, no doubt, by now it is.
Fleabag has become a cultural phenomenon across the last seven years and the term “fleabagging” (making disastrous dating choices) has now entered the lexicon. The live shows last year were meant to be the final time this particular piece saw the light of day but I’m sure that in the current circumstances we’ll all be more than willing to welcome the protagonist and Waller- Bridge back again for one last hurrah.
Production photos by Matt Humphrey
Fleabag is available via the Soho Theatre website. Click here; it is also available on Amazon Prime. To access the production for 48 hours a minimum donation of £4 is required though more can be given. The donation will support Covid-19 and theatre charities
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