Fleabag at Soho Theatre Online
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has become a UK heavyweight on the writing scene. The creator of international award-winning hit Killing Eve and the apparent saviour of the upcoming James Bond offering, she is as diverse as she is in demand. Fleabag, that little one-woman show that debuted at the Edinburgh Festival back in 2013, is the jewel in her crown. The play spawned two critically acclaimed television series and enjoyed a sold-out revival in the West End in 2019, quickly becoming the hottest and hardest to come by ticket in town.
Waller-Bridge made it clear that last year would be her final performance of her breakout character. For those who missed it, Soho Theatre is offering another chance with their new on-demand streaming service. There are several payment options starting as low as £4 for a 48-hour rental. All proceeds will go to charities including the National Emergency Trust and NHS Charities Together.
It’s undoubtedly money well spent. Theatre such as this comes about all too rarely. Master storytellers need no props, effects or scenery. Here we find Waller-Bridge, met with rapturous applause as she glides onto the stage, seated alone on a stool. She remains seated for the majority of the runtime, only occasionally standing and moving about ever so slightly. This is far from a static performance, however.
Instead, it serves to remind us just how adept at physical theatre the artist is. With numerous facial and vocal impressions, the actor effortlessly employs even the slightest movement to say a great deal and to evoke much laughter. She also does drunk very well. It’s the awkwardness of the character that makes her so endearing. Seemingly embarrassed after an over-share or revealing her bra during a job interview, there’s always a mischievous glint and a knowing smirk. There’s also often a sense that we’re in on the joke and playing along with her.
In comedy, timing is everything. Waller-Bridge knows when to let a joke linger or when a rapid-fire approach is required. She also, as the writer of the piece, ensures a perfect balance between light and shade. When she recounts the death of her best friend, for example, an appropriate poignancy is permitted by a pause, with the character’s underlying emotions desperately trying to penetrate the dam she has erected to hold back any tears. Of course, humour is then used to diffuse the situation and transport us back into lighter territory. This makes our protagonist a relatable human and all the more engaging for it. The unpredictable, outwardly free-flowing style of the show and the fact that we can be laughing one minute yet rendered momentarily sombre the next is testament to the pithy writing and the assured and commanding performance. The tempo is up and down, just as it is in life.
It’s naturally the crude jokes, cringe-worthy anecdotes and self-deprecating remarks that have the audience in stitches. What allows this to work so well is the fact that all of the humour is completely character-driven. It makes sense and carries meaning. The protagonist is far from perfect, which is why we are so fond of her. Desperately trying to navigate her way through this crazy world we’re apart of is something we are all able to relate to.
For over an hour, Waller-Bridge holds us in the palm of her hand. She sustains her exuberant energy throughout, skilfully inviting us into the character’s world. Whether seated in the large Wyndam’s Theatre or behind a screen at home, there is a remarkable sense of intimacy here as the character interacts with us.
Fans of the TV incarnation will recognise numerous aspects, including microwaving the supermarket risotto for customers at the guinea pig-themed cafe, her distant dad and turbulent relationship with her sister. The play has many layers beneath the humour as it explores feminism, sexual politics, grief and relationships – among others. It’s a highly detailed character study, and so a second viewing will no doubt still manage to offer something new.
For those lucky enough to be completely new to it, this is quite simply theatre at its funniest and it’s refreshing to see something that really does live up to its own hype. Here’s hoping Waller-Bridge has been busy penning another play during the lockdown. For now, sit back and buckle up for this flawlessly designed rollercoaster of emotions.
Photo: Joan Marcus