Fleabag review: or, more truthfully, an ode to Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Everyone at Fleabag is dressed the same. The foyer to Wyndham’s Theatre is brimming with wide-leg trousers. I spy at least 18 Anthropologie headbands. Daunt Books tote bags are dotted around liberally, each, I suspect, holding a well-thumbed copy of The Testaments. The whole effect is slightly dizzying. It’s like I’ve stumbled into a strange oasis of literary, left-leaning, London women under the age of 50. And, as a 23-year-old English student in a midi-skirt, I slot in seamlessly. Perhaps, I consider suggesting, we should all make a group trip to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond after the show ends.
Straightforward North London stereotypes aside — Fleabag has clearly touched a nerve. The most talked-about television show in Britain, its writer/creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge made ‘sexy’ and ‘priest’ synonymous and guinea pigs great again. So it must be daunting, I think, as I overhear chatter about audience members travelling across the country, to follow-up the most beloved TV show of the decade. Let alone to circle back to its humble theatrical beginnings.
Not a line from the script has been changed since Waller-Bridge debuted it in 2014, and the plot largely follows what became the first season of the television show. Waller-Bridge’s choice not to alter any of the original material places bold faith in her writing. Sometimes it pays off, emphasising the raw staying power of her initial creation; and other times it feels undercooked, as painful plot-lines that the second season kindly tied up are left unresolved on stage.
Crucially, the stage version does not attempt a reconciliation between Fleabag and her sister Claire — a relationship which steadily became the screen adaptation’s beating heart. The realist in me commends this grittier and anguished Fleabag, the romantic does not; and to watch thespian-flea blithely swat away the importance of sisterhood - knowing that it is Claire’s love which ultimately saves Fleabag on screen - makes for distressing viewing.
So yes, the shadow of the television legacy looms unfathomably large, and at times I wonder if the general Fleabag hysteria clouds the viewing experience. It is no fault of Phoebe’s but, armed with their M&S tinned G&T’s, there is a disorientating level of hero-worshipping amongst the crowd. Every joke is actually the funniest thing I have literally ever heard, causing the theatre to spiral into nothing more than a sitcom’s laughing-track.
Often this rapture is wholly deserved (live performance illuminates Waller-Bridge’s masterful physical comedy—a routine as simple as her mother struggling to open the fridge door causes me to snort involuntarily), but often it proves jarring. There are moments where you sense the room is itching to finish Fleabag’s sentences. A particularly famous line from season one, about anal sex on the first date, leads the theatre to bubble like a boiling kettle as Waller-Bridge plays out a lengthy pause before finishing the joke. The punch line (“Do I just have a massive arse-hole?”) receives a round of applause.
But ultimately, isn’t this the point of theatre: to inspire and enthuse? In Fleabag (and by Fleabag I really mean Waller-Bridge) women have found a sort of millennial religious figure. She articulates what we have always known to be true but never quite found the perfect words to express; she makes us laugh until we are giddy and short of breath; and she feels, strangely, like a friend. She might be a six-foot-tall, porcelain-skinned celebrity, but when Waller-Bridge walks out on stage in grey skinny jeans and a bobbly burgundy jumper, she looks just like a sixth-former plonking herself down onto a common room sofa. She is curiously and wonderfully familiar. No wonder we react so strongly to her.
On my tube home I sat opposite a mother and daughter clutching their Fleabag programmes like they were precious stones. “It was like she went inside my brain and stole my innermost thoughts,” the daughter gushed loudly on the Piccadilly line. “Mine too,” came the mother’s quieter reply. I thought about a line towards the play’s end in which Waller-Bridge despairs, “either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone,” and the appeal of the show was laid bare. Indeed, everyone does feel like that a little bit, and it is this universality that makes Fleabag as moving as it is essential.
In a work that transcends age and experience, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created something that is at once unique and ubiquitous. To do so must require a rare sort of talent, the type that crops up only a few special times for each generation. I wish I could extract this potent skill of hers, bottle it, and sell it—because script-writing, and dare I say the world at large, would be a better place for it.
So thank you, Fleabag, for reminding us that we are not, thank god, completely fucking alone.