[Tickets gifted in exchange for a review]
It isn’t exactly going to come as a surprise to you that I love Fleabag.
Initially, this means the television series that everyone has been raving about, which has been winning award after award in recent months.
It is also no surprise that I regard Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a rather fantastic, talented woman. Her writing is superb (for Killing Eve as well as Fleabag), as is her acting. She is very much the woman du jour (alright, well, maybe I fancy her a little bit, too.).
You can imagine my heartbreak when I missed out on tickets to see the original theatre production in the West End on its return to the stage; but when cinemas and theatres across the country announced screenings of the show (thanks to National Theatre Live) I was relieved that I would still have a chance to see Waller-Bridge in action, in all her somewhat gory glory, at Nuffield Southampton Theatres.
If you’re not already aware, the National Theatre sometimes broadcasts screenings of some of its biggest and best shows across the nation, which means you don’t have to be in London to see amazing productions. It’s like a really cultural trip to the cinema. Sometimes these screenings are live, and sometimes they are ‘encores’ (or repeats of live shows). I’ve seen a few already, including Macbeth and Follies.
Fleabag is, as it was originally conceived, a one-woman show – a monologue of around 80 minutes – performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and directed by Vicky Jones. This show, in case you’re wondering, came before the TV series, and was performed at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2013.
In this on-stage phenomenon, Fleabag is an oversexed, chaotic, dominant woman whose life is spiralling somewhat out of control. Her cafe is on the brink of closing, and she has lost her best friend Boo, who has left behind her punk-haired guinea pig, Hilary. Her on-off boyfriend has left her again, and she’s already on the lookout for her next sexual conquest. We are offered a glimpse into her life and, eventually, we start to break down her hard exterior and witness the woman at the heart of the storm.
The first thing to note is that this show is incredibly emotionally charged and raw. Waller-Bridge/Fleabag (for in this show, the two are undeniably entwined) sits on the tiny, empty stage ready to be judged. There is literally nowhere to hide, and no props with which to disguise herself. The beauty of seeing her performance on-screen, too, is that you get so close, you can see the tears in her eyes. It’s gripping stuff.
While the television series delights with Fleabag’s breaking of the fourth wall, this monologue continually speaks directly to us. She is taking us along for the ride; we are privy to ‘in-jokes’ and private moments, winks and nods and funny faces. You cannot help but feel like you are Fleabag’s right-hand person, following her every move.
It’s also, you’ll be relieved to know, as outrageous and hilarious as you’d expect. Fleabag’s accounts of unfortunate dates with small-mouthed rat-men, and her encounter with a drunk girl from Kent on the tube (not guilty!), have the audience gripped with laughter. There are cringe-worthy moments aplenty; her frankness has even the oldest viewers in tears, and she is refreshingly, brutally honest.
Speaking of honest, since Fleabag is so candid about her sexuality, it’s not a show to watch with your parents if you’re not already open about your sex life (just a friendly warning there). But the frankness of the character means that this is not uncomfortable (unless Fleabag wants you to squirm in your seat!) and anecdotes about anal sex are dropped in as casually as one might discuss what the weather was like yesterday.
It’s incredible how one woman on a bar stool can captivate an audience for almost two hours solid with just pure and simple storytelling, no props and minimal sound effects. It’s a testament to Waller-Bridge’s performance, which has the audience in limbo somewhere between heartbreak and hilarity.
She is captivating and (despite living such an outrageous life) believable; the characters that surround Fleabag somehow come to life as she manages to embody more than one person. She switches from sexually voracious to vulnerable and fragmented in the blink of an eye, and you can clearly see when the facade starts to crack. She is unashamedly herself, but at the same time isn’t quite sure who ‘herself’ is.
Fans of the television show will be able to spot key moments from the first series in the monologue; the infamous feminist lecture moment, when Fleabag takes Obama to bed with her, and the tragic loss of her best friend, Boo. You can also see where elements were taken and extended (and often censored a little bit) for the mass audience. For example, there is no wonderfully wicked stepmother here – thank god they made space for Olivia Coleman on screen!
Watching the production on a big screen is obviously not exactly the same as being there in person, but it’s certainly the next best thing. Thanks to the stationary, minimalist performance, there is little of the experience to be missed out on, and the broadcast is clear and uninterrupted. There was one small glitch at the start when the show started screening as people were coming in, so we had to stop and start again once everyone was seated – but I’m not complaining about getting to see the first ten minutes twice!
If you’re already a lover of Fleabag (like myself) you will not be disappointed; just don’t expect it to be exactly like the TV series. Remember that this show came first. It is almost impossible not to compare the two, but it’s such an excellent performance that you will hopefully be able to see it as a success in its own right.
If you’ve never seen Fleabag before, then gird your loins, and remember to put a top on under your jumper; you’re in for a rambunctious, raunchy, reckless ride.