Rewind: Fleabag

October 7, 2019
Experience where it all started, with the stage version of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s one woman play.

It’s a great performance device. A woman walks on stage to sit on a hard-backed chair in the dead centre of the space, vulnerable to the audience. Her clothes, simple sweater and pants, evoke ‘everywoman.’ We quickly realise she is being interviewed for a job, a job she’s desperate for, and the ‘voice off’ interviewer is the first of a series of comically unpleasant men our heroine will encounter.

This is Phoebe Waller-Bridge recreating the one woman show that spawned the multi award winning comedy drama series Fleabag. Recorded at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End, the show was filmed for distribution as part of the National Theatre productions and is certainly worth the ticket.

Fleabag is a perfect storm of Waller-Bridge’s fascination with the very dark side of a modern woman’s life, specifically the isolation, pain and self-loathing that is cloaked in desperation, cynicism and empty sex. The best comedy always skirts the border of tragedy and taboo, and Waller-Bridge’s top-class writing turns every gruesome detail into hilarious comedy gold.

Her writing credits are impressive. Apart from the Fleabag series that ran from 2016 to 2019, she created the Channel 4 sitcom Crashing (2016) in which she played the dangerously chaotic flatmate Lulu, and the exceptional thriller series Killing Eve (2018 to present). Next year audiences will see the results of her co-written screenplay for the next James Bond film No Time to Die.

Fleabag and Crashing packed an extra punch with Waller-Bridge’s performances. Described in a Vogue interview as having the face of a silent movie star, she is engaging to watch – her timing, subtlety, how she swoops her voice from character to character, how she engages the audience intimately as she draws us into dialogues with fictitious friends, dates and family members or ironic comments about them. Often, what she makes us laugh at is shocking in hindsight.

With just a handful of sound effects, the chair and empty space of this original Fleabag performance, is where she strives for emotional connection. There’s the bar where she hooks up with the repulsive date she has nicknamed Rodent, the steps outside her father’s house where she is poignantly given the brush off, and there’s the ‘guinea pig themed’ cafe that she co-owned with a friend whose death she can’t get over.

The tragedy and irony is most apparent when she has other characters offering genuine affection. Fleabag recoils every time, inviting us to share her cynicism in an all too familiar modern emotional disconnect. Her characterisations are delivered seamlessly, her voice and comic play evoking, among others, an upper class mother boasting of her huge breasts, the aggressive Scottish brother in law, the ukelele playing cockney good guy, Joe.

The middle child of divorced upper class parents, Waller-Bridge began acting at the age of eight and went on to graduate from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where she expressed her frustration about the passive roles written for women. She met a like mind in artistic director Vicky Jones and together they created their own theatre company DryWrite in 2007. Their latest collaboration is the HBO series Run, in which Waller-Bridge will have a recurring role.

She appears fearless and provocative in Fleabag, with the skill to take her audience through the widest spectrum of emotions. There’s an hilarious section on the soulless tedium of sexting, and an excruciating exchange with her sister as they attend a feminist lecture. Then there are breakout moments of desperation as she tries to express her pain to an emotionally distant father.

“I’m horribly afraid I’m a morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist”, and, still to Dad, the hugely inappropriate, “If you saw me on the Internet would you click on me?”

She’s playing with her own, and our, dark sides. Her success shows how she has struck a deep chord, pushing the boundaries on how women can portray themselves, whether it’s the damaged Fleabag, the sociopathic Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer) in Killing Eve or Waller-Bridge’s own turn as an android in Solo : A Star Wars Story (2018).

Though stage actress Maddie Rice has successfully taken on Fleabag in its last theatre run in the UK and Australia, this gem in the National Theatre’s film series captures the incomparable Waller-Bridge in the performance that began it all.

Fleabag is playing now in cinemas

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