FringeReview UK 2018
Now at The Old Market (TOM), Brighton, on tour. Directed by Waller-Bridge’s friend and collaborator Vicky Jones (who supplies the voice of Fleabag’s friend Boo, based on her and voicemail), with brief evocative music by Waller-Bridge’s sister Isobel with lighting by Elliot Griggs in this new touring Soho Theatre production. Waller-Bridge’s mother Theresa is the voice of the lecturer, dramatist Adam Brace of male voices including the bank manager, and a range of others (Holly Pigott who also designs the starkly effective tall stool and blackout effect, Charlotte McBrearty, Charlie Walker-Rice). Till June 9th. Then touring.
Its style is sex. Its message is grief. Eyes are widening. Maddie Rice with that memorable startled look of the original has taken Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s now-iconic 2013 Edinburgh Fringe smash Fleabag for a new run.
It’s still directed by Waller-Bridge’s friend and collaborator Vicky Jones (who supplies the voice of Fleabag’s friend Boo, based on her and voicemail), with brief evocative music by Waller-Bridge’s sister Isobel with lighting by Elliot Griggs in this new touring Soho Theatre production. Even Waller-Bridge’s mother Theresa takes a turn as the voice of the lecturer, dramatist Adam Brace (most recently They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida) of male voices including the bank manager, and a range of others (Holly Pigott who also designs the starkly effective tall stool and blackout effect, Charlotte McBrearty, Charlie Walker-Rice).
Fleabag is her family’s name for Waller-Bridge herself, though she eschews the persona of the eponymous play. To those who don’t know Fleabag from her later, expanded BBC incarnation (and Fleabag’s gestation is another comedic epic) she’s a late-twenties woman who says:
I sit on the loo and think about all the people I can have sex with now. I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it.
That’s comedic. But Waller-Bridge is adept at dredging something of a Catholic heritage to darker passages like:
I ordered myself a very slutty pizza. I mean, the bitch was dripping. The dirty little stuffed-crust wanted to be in me so bad, I just ate the little tart like she meant nothing to me, and she loved it.
Anyone who hears that will recognize the obsessive desires mixed with self-loathing that occasion such devastating comedy and it’s what’s at the heart of Fleabag.
So when we begin and end with Fleabag’s attempts to get a loan for her failing guinea-pig themed café she and her late friend Boo started together. The bank-manager startled by Fleabag’s having run there, then removing her top and realising she had no shirt underneath he sends her out. This for once is a genuine accident. But it’s somehow a deep-level statement. The manager and his branch been reprimanded for inappropriate sexual behaviour and there’s virtually no women working there. How resonant that is, even more than 2013. Fleabag was hoping to play on that. Given they have so few requests for loans from women.
So Fleabag’s found a faultline more perilous than her own. She keeps doing it. whether somehow (with her sister) being a ‘bad feminist’ who alone in the audience puts her hand up when asked to trade five years of her life for a perfect body – which ironically she thinks her sister has. Or wanking to Obama that finally determines her boyfriend Harry to leave her; despite his supportiveness over her bereavement. Even there Fleabag finds desolate consolation. He’ll come back anyway he always does. The excitement of how selfishly he forensically cleans the place on exit of himself and the surroundings like it’s a crime-scene. In fact she sometimes suggests break-ups just to get the cleaning done. But this time…
And there’s the men, the idiot-laughing fool Fleabag eventually accepts out of sheer desperation having thrown him over in their one date for excusing himself from sex. There’s the beautiful man who wants mainly anal sex. Which occasions the profound self-examination ‘Have I got a massive arsehole?’ Fleabag can never allow herself beauty. One shagger litanizes as he pummels away ‘you’re so young, you’re so young’ and these disturbances of male sexuality outbid anything you’re invited to find disturbing in Fleabag herself.
One thing Fleabag manages, is to excoriate most of male sexuality. Even the nice ones. She say of sensitive Harry (though he distinguishes her from other girls ‘you can keep up) as ‘wanting to make love ‘when all she wants ‘is a fuck’. In other words, Harry can’t attune himself to intense sometimes impersonal desire.
To those who know the dilated six-episode BBC 3 version Waller-Bridge was asked to create. The one-person multi-voiced version will come as a familiar distillation – and unsettling surprise. There are divergences, for instance Fleabag’s sister promises to help her out but doesn’t, instead of Fleabag’s not having the courage to sk. There’s no awful godmother, who’s only mentioned, so no theft of the wonderfully appalling Olivia Colman’s statuette or the climactic scene in the retrospective. All that’s new. The edgy then warmer then alienated sister is certainly the one who asks for her sweater back, and who’s havering ouver that Finnish job. Of course al this is dilate dover several episodes and expanded. Seeing them both they compliment each other. Waller-Bridge has managed to retain the energy and integrity of the original in her BBC series and as here she brings it round full circle to her bank manager, though in the original it’s as if we’ve traversed her whole story in a beat and we’re back in that office where he’s asked her to leave.
At its heart though is Boo, the friend who walked out after her boyfriend confessed to cheating on her, intending to get hospitalized. And got hit by a bike, a car and another bike, making the local news and causing some excitement. And there’s the guinea-pig Hilary, bought by Fleabag on a whim. she doesn’t even like guinea-pigs, they’re pointless. But Boo adores Hilary. And she’s built like a guinea-pig herself, and Fleabag’s best friend.
Rice is infectiously funny, more seemingly innocent perhaps than the imposing Waller-Bridge herself. But she manages all te original’s inflections, the stare the arch look, the wild energy and sudden looks of grief. It’s clear that She and Jones (and I imagine Waller-Bridge ) have worked hard to preserve the Fleabag we know and the next actor to play it, breaking it out of the tight identification with Waller-Bridge.
This production is Fleabag neat. Gulp it straight, don’t cough. Its harrowing streak of genius burns like a healing scar torn. There’s something in the original you’ll have to see. It’s not in the BBC version. This is where it goes too far for even sassy younger BBC 3 viewers. Waller-Bridge might have wryly reflected that media compromise is about not killing your darlings. Waller-Bridge is now in demand in Hollywood, but she and Vicky Jones in DryWrite their company have set projects in train, and we can only hope Waller-Bridge will return with different dramas, at least as original, raw, brilliantly funny and devastating as Fleabag.