Time Out says
Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings back the bleakly hilarious monologue that started it all
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.
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This is one of the performances you don't want to mis. Phoebe Waller-Bridge succeeds in you getting to love the maladaptive person which is hidden in everyone, especially in the British.
If you've seen and enjoyed the sort of plays Phoebe Waller-Bridge has performed in before, you shouldn't expect more of the same here. This is a far cry from 'Rope', which she appeared in at the Almeida in 2009, and a million miles away from 'Hay Fever', her 2011 West End debut. And it's absolutely bloody brilliant. It's possible that whether or not you find 'Fleabag' shocking will depend on your age. As a 19-year old student with friends who talk about sex frankly, openly and occasionally explicitly, it felt as though there was more to connect with than to be outraged by in this hour-long monologue, in which Waller-Bridge's nameless young woman weaves together the story of the death of her best friend with that of her own multifarious sexual exploits. On an ideological level, Waller-Bridge's play serves as an exploration of modern feminism, and of the line between 'sexual liberation' and 'sluttiness' that so occupies contemporary debate. Crucially, none of this discussion is so foregrounded as to make the work too explicitly 'about' anything in particular, and you'll struggle to weigh up all of the ideas going on at the time anyway, because you'll be laughing too hard. Because it's really, really funny. That's down not only to Waller-Bridge's script, but to her remarkable performance, which veers between sarcasm, smut and sass with consummate style whilst rarely letting up a breakneck pace. She's sort of awkward, and sort of awful, and the wonder of Waller-Bridge's portrayal is that it leaves the audience unable not to like her, however dark the twists and turns of her story become. Director Vicky Jones' intelligent use of sound design ensures that we are constantly reminded that this is a story of London today, and that oughtn't to be underestimated. This is a piece of theatre which - as well as being almost dangerously enjoyable - is fundamentally about the people and attitudes of now; and to do that subtly and authentically is a harder job than most can manage.