18 May 2014
After being showered with awards on its première at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comic monologue seemed like a pretty safe ticket. Yet I didn’t anticipate I would be quite so surprised or moved by the show – or, to be honest, that I would find it so blisteringly, stomach-achingly funny.
Within the first few minutes it’s not hard to see why the praise, nominations and awards came flooding in. Fleabag has that winning combination that sounds so simple, but is all too rarely seen in equal measure: a brilliant script that doesn’t falter once, and an absolutely pitch-perfect performance.
Waller-Bridge’s character is one that, if I met her in real life, I’m not sure I’d like very much – but then, that’s half the point. She is perverse, selfish, brusque and very, very rude. She is also absolutely hilarious: we laugh in disbelief sometimes, but this script is truly witty and doesn’t rely exclusively on the shock factor. Sure, this is not a show I’d take my grandparents or even my parents too – at times it’s almost extraordinarily crude. But it also carries aching poignancy and deep sadness, sometimes even as it is making you laugh. Fleabag doesn’t have a plot, as such, but more a meandering sketch of the character’s life; yet the core thread focuses on the recent death of her best friend, Boo. The way Waller-Bridge blends the undeniable hilarity of a guinea pig-themed café with her grief and – as becomes increasingly obvious – her guilt, unveils this production’s intelligent nuances.
From her laugh-out-loud meeting with ‘Rodent Face’ on the tube, to her in-your-face sexual encounters, to the genuinely sad, misjudged episode with Cockney gent Joe, Waller-Bridge’s grasp of character is inspired throughout. She truly is a fantastic actress and writer, sketching whole personalities in brief dialogue and subtle expressive movements. It’s brilliant to see an incredibly talented woman giving a wickedly funny, bolshy performance that asks sharp questions of society’s depiction of gender and sexuality, whilst maintaining immense heart and warmth. One of my particular favourite moments involves her realisation that she is, in the eyes of an entire lecture room of women, a “bad feminist”. As comical as it is, this is to me such a relatable moment in the sometimes conflicting opinions and pressures of modern feminists.
After seeing Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary the week before, also in a solo performance, I feel inspired by the women currently gracing our stages – and by British theatre as a whole. You couldn’t get much more different than these two shows, but where else would stage such inventive, unique works. Neither is a sure-fire hit or a definite sell-out (as seen from The Testament of Mary‘s run on Broadway) but somewhere a programmer made a spectacularly good decision in taking a punt on the incredible Fleabag.