Fleabag at Wyndham’s Theatre
Fleabag is the TV series everyone’s seen – the BAFTA-winning, moment-defining runaway success of the last few years – and its West End press night is a hot ticket. The show’s stars have turned up for the occasion along with legions of other starry types; Andrew Scott, Fiona Shaw, Sian Clifford and Bill Paterson rub shoulders with Rami Malek, Elle Fanning and Neil Gaiman. But before it was in living rooms everywhere, Fleabag was a play: a one-woman show written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, directed by Vicky Jones and produced by their company DryWrite. So here it is, six years after its Edinburgh premiere, in its original, purest form.
Visually, the play and the TV show are different beasts. The stage presents only a chair, some strip lighting and a single cast member – Waller-Bridge herself. The other characters are brought to life in two ways: recurring people are voiced by Waller-Bridge, while lesser figures come through as voiceovers.
The unfolding storyline is a masterclass in “tickle tickle slap”: a neat phrase the show programme offers us to sum up the phenomenon of being made to laugh before being floored by a harrowing fist of truth. While the audience is in stitches, its guard completely down, it’s so unprepared for the sudden pitch-black onslaught that the response is a mixture of hushed silence, an unsure snort of laughter and even (at one difficult juncture) a collective gasp. There are moments which are hilarious, revealing and heartbreaking all at once; Fleabag describes the way her ex has started sadly whispering when he thinks she’s asleep, “where did you go?”. This bit’s a real crowd-pleaser and the laughter is raucous, yet it dawns on the spectator that we’re being left a clue, that the withdrawal is the symptom of a girl who’s suffered an unthinkable trauma.
The lighting (designed by Elliot Griggs) achieves mountains with the simplest tricks. When a drunken Fleabag bangs on her father’s door in the small hours, the sudden yellow light that falls on her indicates his opening the door, but at the same time it’s an exposing, accusatory spotlight.
As one of DryWrite’s founders, and the setter of countless briefs for its writers, it’s no wonder Waller-Bridge is a dab hand at naturalistic dialogue. Her writing is mercilessly funny too; it will be difficult to forget the exquisite description of our protagonist’s vagina looking like “a little bap that’s been dropped on the floor of a hairdresser’s”.
Something that comes across more starkly in the play is the need of our protagonist and our writer (united in pleasing duality) to know if anyone else feels the way they do about sex: both hopelessly horny and desperately empty. Fleabag peers into the dark depths of desire, the body, self-worth and self-sabotage. And what a useful, tricky tool is humour for concealing those tangled anxieties. Waller-Bridge uses it both as bait and weapon, and the effect is devastating.
Photos: Matt Humphrey
Fleabag is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 20th August until 14th September 2019. Tickets are sold out, but for further information, visit the theatre’s website here.
Fleabag will be broadcast live in cinemas courtesy of NT Live on 12th September at 7.30pm. For further information or to book, visit here.
Watch the NT Live trailer for Fleabag here: