It is the law that every theatre hack writing about the 2019 West End revival of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s career-making monologue ‘Fleabag’ must first list all the other times they saw it.
So apologies and that, but my first time was in a dank cave at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, and it felt like one of the funniest things I’d ever seen: its depiction of a young woman hurtling through London on full-on self-destruct mode felt genuinely outrageous and fresh.
A year later I saw it in a large tent at the 2014 Latitude Festival, where it felt almost unbearably depressing. The jokes didn’t get big laughs from the frazzled crowd. But the depths of self-loathing plumbed by Waller-Bridge’s protagonist – who I guess we can call Fleabag for the sake of ease – connected brutally.
Third time around, it feels like a little of each. The character feels more familiar, both in terms of the TV show and the wider influence of Waller-Bridge’s writing. It’s funny, though there’s less sense of it being taboo-busting. But equally, the more expansive, textured and ultimately hopeful second series had made me forget quite how bleak the original monologue gets.
And the monologue is not the TV show, even if the first series (and a couple of lines from the second) was extrapolated from its DNA. There’s no Hot Priest, foxes or gins in tins. In fact, there are very few other characters. Fleabag’s sister, Claire, and deceased best friend, Boo, are still conjured by Waller-Bridge as she sits alone on a stool. But she spends more time launching into a marvellously obscene pout and doing an impression of the rodenty guy she meets on the tube. It is self-contained, a parallel universe version of the character that remains grubby, bedsitty and tragic.
And it is an amazing performance: Waller-Bridge still sounds both insouciant and devastated. At the start, she presents her heroine’s most awful exploits like hunting trophies. There is a malevolent chutzpah as she kicks off by detailing the time she was dumped by her boyfriend for wanking over Obama in bed while eating a ‘slutty pizza’. We could be somebody she’s boasting away to down the pub.
By the end, though, she is no longer amused with herself; instead, she is shattered by the fallout from her nihilistic desire to be liked, with a harrowing intensity I don’t quite recall the TV Fleabag taking on, if only because that story was leavened with other characters. If we have a role now, it’s as her confessor (maybe the Hot Priest was all of us etc).
The slight elephant in the room is that this is still at heart an hourlong Edinburgh Fringe monologue. Vicky Jones’s production is to all intents and purposes unchanged, barring the fact that Waller-Bridge is wearing a nicer jumper. I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelmed by the occasion: it is a great piece of writing, and has inevitably gained stardust simply by dint of the fact Waller-Bridge is now a major celebrity.
But it was written for a different context, and some of the gear changes belie its origin, the need for the narrator-with-a-secret to get her secret out within a tight 65 minutes. Still, the fact that the tonal shift is substantially accomplished by a truly gut-wrenching pivotal scene involving a mortally wounded guinea pig – there are some things that the spoken word can conjure more graphically than television – is testament to the enduring writing.
Ultimately, ‘Fleabag’ series two is Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece, the perfection of the character. But the return of the original monologue isn’t just an ego trip; it’s a piece of theatre that still really stands up (though I’d love to hear somebody justify those top prices). With Waller-Bridge off writing a Bond film now, I doubt we’ll see her on the stage any time soon. So let’s savour this dark night of the soul, one last time.