Six years on from her premiere performance at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, Phoebe Waller-Bridge returned to the role of Fleabag, performing a limited string of shows in London’s West End, the National Theatre and a Sky Arts live broadcast to cinemas across the country.
Since the premiere in 2013, Fleabag has seen two television series, a sold-out run on Broadway, a Bafta and 11 Emmy nominations.
It’s hard to deny the cultural impact this one-woman show has had. In this one cinema alone, there were five dedicated screens, each sold out.
Looking around at the others in the queue for the screens, it’s hard not to notice the demographic for whom Waller-Bridge has united. An abundance of white women in maxi-skirts with gin and tonics in their hands.
Fleabag has received criticism in the past for being marketed exclusively for ‘posh girls’, raising concerns about inclusivity.
Despite some criticism, clearly Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones have highlighted more modern perspectives on theatrical form. Whereas previously theatre was conceived as an environment reserved for the middle class, here it aids to the comedic character of Fleabag as she seeks to alienate herself from such a society.
The very simple staging helps create an intimate atmosphere, distinctive to a theatrical production. Sat on a red office chair, in a jumper and jeans with her hair quickly and loosely scrambled up, this is far from our Fleabag in plunging neckline jumpsuits enjoying champagne receptions seen on TV.
Instead this performance by Waller-Bridge feels more intense, vulnerable, and real. This is exaggerated with a soundscape by Isobel Waller-Bridge, an enveloping and rich combination including voice overs.
There are moments it feels as though the sound swallows Fleabag up and reveals a far more isolated and scared Waller-Bridge than previously encountered.
As for her monologue, the loss of asides, perhaps my favourite stylist element of the television show feels disappointing at first, but I realised the whole performance as a monologue is one long aside. It feels so intimate, so contained and shared. There’s no breaking of the fourth wall because there are no walls. There are no limits or boundaries in the content, instead everything is free to be shared and experienced.
In the absence of voice-overs, Waller-Bridge’s ability and talent shines through as she successfully jumps between impressions of other characters. The degree to which she can contort both face and body to present such an array of distinctive and entertaining characters is truly impressive. From the scrunch-up mouth impression of ‘The Rodent’ on the tube to when she plays her mother’s breast obstructing opening of the fridge. Until the moment the stage goes black and she returns for her (rightly deserved) standing ovation, it is an honour to watch Waller-Bridge perform.
Yet one thing must remain consistent throughout both stage and screen; Fleabag is not a nice person. Moments where the stage may encourage relatability, are distinctly and dramatically balanced by events and twists excluded from the television adaptations. More than just the additional bone-crushing ending, her occasional fatphobic or insensitive jokes about sexuality means this encounter with Fleabag is inherently more cruel.
And yet being an audience member, you are more than likely a fan of the show and your heart has probably been truly stolen by Waller-Bridge in the last few years.
The staging and acting may lend itself to be considered as vulnerable and lonely, but I am still cautious to identify with this character of Fleabag as a broadly relatable figure.
This was one of the moments when I wished I had been amongst the crowd upon first debut six years ago. I wished I could judge and view this Fleabag entirely unknowing of the television series. I imagined how it felt upon first viewing in Edinburgh, where an encounter with this angry but horny woman felt fresh and new.
Fleabag now has such a cult reputation (one that I buy into) that there is no surprise upon moments of big reveals or gut punching moments of classic dialogue. Instead you can feel the air of anticipation as the audience eagerly await these moments. The jokes may be funny and continue to land, but it is almost as though the punch lines are demanded by the viewers.
Still the praise for this show is endless and it was a joy to not only get to witness the origins of such a masterpiece but also be a part of its conclusion. There is a reason why this may be one of the most financially viable one-woman performances in recent productions.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones’ creation has landmarked a moment in female art, and in turn the repercussions are affecting the accessibility for other female artists.
Featured Image: IMDB