Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ Is a Great TV Show, And Even More Intense On Stage
'Fleabag' by Phoebe Waller-Bridge began life as a one-woman stage show in Edinburgh in 2013. Now, after the success of the TV show, it lands—brilliantly, shocks intact—in New York.
If you have seen Fleabag, the TV show, the dark and funny stories that its creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge tells on stage in the 65-minute one-woman show of the same name will be very familiar. You’ve seen it—with some guinea pig violence specifics slightly changed—before.
But at New York City’s Soho Playhouse (to April 14) you are also going back to the source, because this is the award-winning and nominated stage show Waller-Bridge first presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013 before Fleabag the TV show began (its second season recently premiered in Britain). Waller-Bridge has also received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations as the writer and show-runner of Killing Eve.
Fleabag the stage show, directed by Vicky Jones, may be a monologue, but Waller-Bridge’s chameleon-like delivery, mannerisms, and facial expression changes make it feel like a much more populated production. It may be a one-woman show, with Waller-Bridge seated on a chair center stage, but this monologue contains multitudes (best friend, a job interviewer, weirdo lovers, estranged sister, confused dad).
Fleabag, as named in the Playbill, is a broken person and a total person, and she is also ringmaster of her own bizarre, and bizarrely normal, life circus. Very minimal sound intrusions, of the male job interviewer, traffic, of her best friend Boo’s voice, are the only other intrusions.
The show begins with a job interview, Fleabag herself the candidate; the sound of a stolid-sounding man the interviewer. Pretty soon she interrupts him breezily to prompt that the firm has an ongoing sexual harassment case; then, thinking she is wearing a T-shirt, she lifts her sweater to reveal her bra. He says the job would involve “throwing up the occasional twit.”
He says he is worried she thought he might have wanted to have sex with her. Not likely. “Look at yourself,” she says. Soon, she has made him leave his own office.
Fleabag is a beautifully written and performed clash of the real and surreal; the profane and very serious. She revels in ordering “slutty pizza,” and of lusting after Zac Efron and Barack Obama, when she should be doing her business accounts.
But the real story Fleabag wants to tell convey, with all the jokes and grossness as a battery of determined interruption and resistance, is one of grief. Boo, also her partner in the guinea pig-themed café they both run, is dead. She can’t get away from that lump of pain, and it’s that horrible, life-changing incident Fleabag scabrously dances around.
Fleabag the character is both a wonderful storyteller, and an uncompromising one. However, Waller-Bridge doesn’t set out to shock as much as to make what we perceive as shocking everyday. This is the story of a life, told unflinchingly, literally, with all the usual evasions and self-editing erased. Nothing seems to be embarrassing to her, although her free-wheeling bravura is also a mask.
All the contradictions and excruciations we might keep silent, Fleabag says and confronts. The sex and surreal perversity within Fleabag is made matter-of-fact. “I stood staring at a handprint on my wall from when I had a threesome on my period,” is said in the same sing-songy tone of voice as a weather update.
“I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it,” she says. We hear of a meet-cute on the Tube, with a rodent-y looking guy (she’ll eventually dump him, “my bum out a bit. Give him some perspective”), and then an epic drunken night out, which is not hers, but a woman she finds slumped on a train platform.
Waller-Bridge somehow plays both of them, the inebriated person she is trying to help, glassily looking up at Fleabag. It’s so well performed, you laugh at Waller-Bridge's performance of extreme drunkenness and worry about how the drunken woman will get home safely.
Fleabag recalls Boo’s death; it was unintentional, Fleabag says. Feeling low, Boo had walked into the cycle lane just to get a little injured and then been actually killed. Two other people were killed too. “She was such a dick. I didn’t tell her parents the truth. I told her boyfriend. He cried a lot.”
If the shocking stories sound flattened, Fleabag’s staccato delivery is a consistent jab to the audience; Fleabag takes the piss, gives tragedy the side-eye, and stays afloat with chippiness and snark. The little warmth around Fleabag, in the daily drudge of the newly Boo-less café, is Joe, a cheerful Londoner. After dealing with the drunken woman, she goes to a “business bar,” where she pretend to be in business.
The writing is deliciously without limits, with taboos more vaporized than trampled, such as when Fleabag drunkenly visits her father and thinks, “I wonder if he’d find me attractive. If I wasn’t his daughter.” She then asks him: “If you saw me on the internet, would you click on me?”
Her warped relationship with her sister, with money a fateful pivot, is played out at a feminist lecture where she and her sibling—despite their strained relationship—are the only two people in attendance to raise their hands when the audience is asked if they would give up five years of their life for the perfect body.
The most shocking thing in Fleabag isn’t the explicit riffs around sex and sudden violence, or the contortions one must perform in the service of vagina picture-taking, but the emotional toll of Boo’s death, and the guilt Fleabag feels around it which gives the show its twist and most meaningful pauses and depth.
One night she searches every single internet sex term, and then notes: “Suddenly the sun’s creeping in and I’m raw.” Just to show how effectively Waller-Bridge manages these transitions, verbally and expressively, the Soho Playhouse can be reverberating with laughter, then suddenly pin-sharp silent. Grief and sadness is in pursuit of Fleabag. It will corner her eventually.
The last stretch of Fleabag features a painful, f-word littered confessional, and then a return to that job interview; its end is not happy but rather a sigh of survival and wink of knowing defiance. As we can all see and be grateful for, Waller-Bridge found a way-better job.