'Fleabag': Theater Review

Fleabag Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Tristram Kenton
A filthy, hilarious, heartbreaking vagina monologue.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge revives her award-winning fringe-theater hit about a sexually rapacious young London woman, which became a highly acclaimed TV series for the BBC and Amazon.

Returning to the same theater that hosted its London launch three years ago, the dark sex comedy Fleabag has blossomed in the interim from award-winning Edinburgh Fringe hit to cult TV sensation. Its writer and star, 31-year-old Phoebe Waller-Bridge, expanded her short one-woman play into a six-part TV series for the BBC and Amazon, earning rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic when it aired this summer. The screen version is shortlisted for best show and best actress at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards next week, with more nominations and prizes sure to follow.

Directed by Vicky Jones, Waller-Bridge’s collaborator in their joint theatrical company DryWrite, the original stage version of Fleabag is a savagely funny portrait of sex and the city, female friendship, and family dysfunction. “I’m not obsessed with sex,” the unnamed heroine insists, “I just can’t stop thinking about it.” But there is nothing prurient about the sexual encounters described in the play, which are often graphic but never pornographic, and certainly more neurotic than erotic. Imagine a tragicomic hybrid of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.

Fleabag made Waller-Bridge a hot property in the U.K. This latest short revival sold out in literally minutes, and has been greeted with five-star reviews. Waiting in line for returns offers the sole chance to catch it now. Given its minimal staging and apparently wide appeal, Jones and Waller-Bridge will likely face offers to bring the play to larger venues and other cities. However, the duo’s busy slate of future projects, including an espionage thriller for BBC America and a mooted second season of Fleabag, may curtail further live plans.

The emotionally raw antiheroine of Fleabag is a 28-year-old middle-class Londoner with an apparently insatiable appetite for porn, alcohol and casual sex. But she is also consumed by guilt and grief, haunted by her mother’s death, and hobbled by anxieties about being a terrible friend and a “bad feminist." A realistically complex and rounded young woman, in other words, that Waller-Bridge depicts in a nonjudgmental and engagingly witty manner.

While the TV series featured a large ensemble cast, the stage blueprint was always a solo vehicle for Waller-Bridge. Aided only by minimal sound effects and snippets of prerecorded dialogue, she performs Fleabag perched on a high chair on a bare set, breaking the fourth wall to address the audience in a conspiratorial tone that is charmingly frank but also slyly self-justifying. The key difference in the theater is that she adopts multiple voices and personas to invoke other characters, demonstrating a flair for physical comedy and vocal mimicry not seen onscreen. A scene in which she undergoes various humiliating contortions in order to send explicit selfies to a boyfriend, her face bored and impatient throughout, is a witheringly funny take on modern relationship etiquette.

The only real disappointment for anyone coming to the play after seeing the TV series, myself included, is its brevity. A compact one hour long, this theatrical version features the same key narrative events as its three-hour BBC cousin, but inevitably has less space for its rich subplots and emotionally devastating slow-reveal twists. The most keenly felt absences here are the heroine’s gloriously unhinged stepmother and cheerfully remote father, superbly played in the TV iteration by Olivia Colman and Bill Paterson. Major players in the psychodrama onscreen, both are little more than fleetingly glimpsed cameos onstage.

In most other respects, the concise running time serves the play well. Waller-Bridge’s superficially ditzy, scattershot monologue is actually delivered with finely calibrated precision, jumping between time frames, and rapidly shifting register from farce to tragedy, which only amplifies the plate-juggling emotional tension of a live theatrical experience. Fleabag was partly conceived as an interactive exercise in keeping audiences on their toes, and its creator clearly enjoys manipulating our sympathies, subverting tender confessions with shock revelations, heartbreaking vulnerability with casual cruelty. Through the voice of her unreliable narrator, Waller-Bridge invites us all to recognize our own capacity for sociopathic narcissism.

Venue: Soho Theatre, London
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Director: Vicky Jones
Playwright: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Set designer: Holly Piggott
Music and sound designer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Producers: Francesca Moody, David Luff
Presented by: DryWrite, Soho Theatre