There are very few people in the UK who haven’t heard of Fleabag – it’s a generational sensation, but what is all the fuss about?
Written and performed by: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Director: Vicky Jones
I am completely guilty of not jumping on this bandwagon three years ago, simply nodding along to all the conversations praising every element of the franchise. Until I recently read about comedy performances being described as the ‘new Fleabag’ and I realised that I absolutely had to see what everyone was going on about.
Fleabag, created by and starring, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, started as a one woman show at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe with a stool (most good things do) . Here it received a mixed response, but the one aspect everyone seemed to agree on was that it was shocking, different and mindboggling. The show won a Fringe First Award for comedy (the best of the best) and then was adapted into a two-season BBC series. Bam! A new level of stardom was achieved by Waller-Bridge, now a household name worldwide. I am unable to sum it up in one word, let’s go for: strikingly intelligent dark humour. The demand was so significant that Waller-Bridge brought the play back to Broadway and the West End. The show would be performed one last time on the big stage. A one woman show on the West End is a stunningly impressive achievement in itself. A couple of days ago I saw the NT live recording of this production, the seventy minutes that started it all. (Side Note: Upcoming long read - Theatre in the cinema: is NT Live a good idea?)
The synopsis provided by NT Live:
“Fleabag may seem oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With family and friendships under strain and a guinea pig café struggling to keep afloat, Fleabag suddenly finds herself with nothing to lose.”
It’s just her and a stool. Regardless of what you do, if you are able to keep people captivated with just that, I have a shedload of respect . I don’t want to give the game away too much for those of you who haven’t watched the series yet, but you are in for a treat…
Concentrating on this stage production for the moment, I would like to point one thing out: it is hard to re-do shows, especially world-rockingly successful ones. This might seem illogical, but a different space, five years on and crazily high expectations make such a production vulnerable to being hounded by criticism. This one was a risk, but it paid off.
This is physical comedy at its finest. Miranda Hart-like but with deeper, darker, resonances. Waller-Bridge knows what she is doing. I don’t have enough experience to judge guinea pig impressions but I’m pretty sure hers has to be up there. She inhabits the space she creates and manages to generate fringe-level intimacy in a West End theatre. No easy feat. And, considering the amount of material that makes a typical British audience wince (I definitely saw some squirming) there was plenty of eye contact. Waller-Bridge is fantastic, and I could watch her all day. Every ounce of her is invested in the role: every fidget, every twitch, every lip bite. It has to be – there is no escape. She is clearly incredibly comfortable with her ability to make audiences laugh at the darkest comedy without even realising what they are amused by (if they did, they would quickly stop laughing). She invites us into her world, a world that almost appears normal until we are back in the job interview and we are forced to evaluate the atrocities which we have just witnessed. When I say ‘witnessed’, I really mean that. I found myself living through the traumas with her, step by step.
“I’m not obsessed with sex, I just can’t stop thinking about it” Fleabag
Sex is mentioned. A lot. (Not one to see with your parents.) Yet, it is not simply filthy, that would be far too easy. It is more than that – it’s intelligent, it’s perceptive, it’s brilliant. Fleabag openly discusses female sexual desire – not something often talked about, let alone in the detail which we are faced with here. It uncovers the baggage we carry around with us, the pressure we put on ourselves and it begins the conversation about things which the British public are only capable of whispering, if that.
The show in its most recent form has been criticised for taking a step back. Why go back to a six-year-old live performance when you can catch the series on iPlayer in the comfort of your own room? For all its well-deserved glory I did get a slight impression that, for a want of better words, people only like it because people like it - that the culture has become bigger than the actual production. However, this is inevitable because it is from 2013. However, I still thought it was worth seeing where it all began. It is not disappointing if you view it for what it is: an old show.
The Stage has described Fleabag as “a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon”. When we think of the 2010s, we will think of Fleabag. There is an element of Zeitgeist here (literal meaning: the defining spirit of the time, just because I’m a German nerd). Now that the run is over let’s celebrate Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s new successes, because wow this woman can write. She wrote the first series of Killing Eve and was even brought in to spice up the new Bond script.
If you haven’t seen the series – go, watch it now. But warning: it’s not what you might expect.
Just in case you were wondering: Fleabag is called Fleabag because Waller-Bridge “wanted something that would create an immediate subtext for the character," and so we never find out if the central character has a name.