If I was a fan of Phoebe Waller-Bridge before, now I’m truly obsessed. The National Theatre’s production of her extraordinary one-woman show Fleabag, which she wrote and performed, is every bit as thrillingly dark, witty and relatable as the immensely successful BBC show which first brought Waller-Bridge to my attention. Fleabag first caused a stir at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, as a monologue which was remarked upon for its sharp dialogue and Waller-Bridge’s magnetic and versatile acting. It has since been adapted into a TV show which first aired in 2016, quickly becoming a cultural touchstone for a generation of disillusioned twenty-somethings.
My hopes for the National Theatre’s production were pretty high therefore, and fortunately, I was not disappointed. The play is extraordinary due to Waller-Bridge’s acerbic wit which is often close to crossing the line. Indeed, Waller-Bridge never shies away from taboo topics such as sex, masturbation and her dead mother’s enormous boobs. Fleabag’s anti-hero is described by the National Theatre as ‘oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed’, and it is precisely these elements of her personality which make the character so powerful. While much of the comedy derives from Fleabag’s narcissism and crudeness, Waller-Bridge’s writing remains nuanced and there are striking moments of angst and insecurity which are all too relatable.
Having already watched and loved the TV show, I was interested to see how the experience of watching the play would be different. If anything, the play is bleaker: Fleabag clutches a guinea-pig to her chest until its bones crunch in one particularly dark scene. Moreover, the fact that Waller-Bridge appears alone onstage gives the play a more confessional tone and sense of vulnerability. Certainly, Waller-Bridge’s acting in the stage play is every bit as powerful and the absence of other actors is not felt. Waller-Bridge’s performance of Fleabag’s sister felt inseparable from Sian Clifford’s performance on screen, making me realise how closely the actors of the TV show must have studied the original play.
Has Fleabag dated since it was first performed? Although the majority of her writing feels as relevant as ever, some of the jokes now seem rather fatphobic, and I notice they didn’t make it to the TV show. Aside from this, Fleabag was just as electrifying, scandalous and hilarious as I had hoped it would be, and I would highly recommend watching it whether you have seen the TV show or not.
Image Credit: Malvern Theatres