FringeReview UK 2023
Original, raw, brilliantly funny and devastating. This production is Fleabag neat. Its harrowing streak of genius burns like a healing scar torn.
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 and sound effects – including a few more like guinea-pig twitterings. Lighting’s by Elliot Griggs in this new 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 TBA. Encores still showing.
The Soho’s space lends an intimacy that Tony Grech-Smith has caught superbly square from the stalls, and slightly above. Stuart Pring’s lighting adds a layer of direct contrast even more intense than the live experience and with the mix of close-ups and often simple focus on the box, we received perhaps the most physical approximation to being in a theatre. Conrad Fletcher’s sound picked up and amplified Isobel Waller-Bridge’s composition sound design and ambient audience noise.
Its style is sex. Its message is grief. Eyes widen. Phoebe Waller-Bridge with that memorable startled look of the original takes her now-iconic 2013 Edinburgh Fringe smash Fleabag for a final run back at Soho Theatre where it all started. Judging by packed audiences on encore screenings, it should be made an annual pilgrimage.
Fleabag’s 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 the heart of Fleabag.
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. Lighting’s by Elliot Griggs in this 2019 Soho Theatre production, which builds on Maddie Rice’s tour in 2018. Griggs adds a few hollowed-out touches. This though is the originator’s final Fleabag.
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).
So 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’s startled by Fleabag’s having run there, 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 were reprimanded for inappropriate sexual behaviour and virtually no women work there. How resonant that is, even more than 2013. Fleabag hoped 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 put hands 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 Fleabag sometimes suggests break-ups just to get the cleaning done. But this time…
And there’s the men, the idiot-laughing “Tube-Rodent” Fleabag eventually accepts out of sheer desperation having thrown him over in their one date for excusing himself from sex. Waller-Bridge’s rendition of seeing attractive eyes reveal a rodent mouth, the appalling synchronicities that get the whole carriage interested, Waller-Bridge’s expressive range is that of a great comic mimic, but one who does pathos.
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” which she later fantasizes over. These disturbances of male sexuality outbid anything you’re invited to find disturbing in Fleabag herself.
One thing Fleabag manages, is to excoriate male sexuality. Even nice ones. She says of sensitive Harry (who 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 BBC3 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 ask. There’s no awful godmother, who’s only mentioned in a typical aside where their father “went and fucked our godmother”, 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 over that Finnish job. Of course all this is dilated over several episodes and expanded. Seeing them both they complement 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, it’s mutual. And she’s built like a guinea-pig herself, “straight down” Waller-Bridge gestures. She’s Fleabag’s best friend; no, her soulmate.
The once imposingly “gallish” Waller-Bridge is infectiously funny, even more confident in physical acting. She slows even more daringly to repetitive actions: miming vaginal photography in the disabled toilet at work is an excruciatingly drawn-out gem, playing an audience she knows is helpless. Her imitation if a runaway guinea-pig foraging, sniffing and sneaking out of its hutch s a tour-de-farce.
Waller-Bridge keeps all the original’s inflections, the stare, the arch look, wild energy, sudden startles of grief. It’s clear that she and Jones worked hard to preserve the Fleabag we know and had a new actor play it. Still, Waller-Bridge can’t resist setting the bar just that bit higher.
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 BBC3 viewers. Waller-Bridge might have wryly reflected that media compromise is about not killing your darlings. Again, its style is sex. Its message is grief and guilt. It’s like no other tragedy. You laugh all through and go out crying.
Post Killing Eve, post Bond, Waller-Bridge now bestrides Hollywood, but she and Vicky Jones in their company DryWrite have projects in train. We can only hope Waller-Bridge will return with different dramas, at least as original, raw, brilliantly funny and devastating as Fleabag.