Paul T Davies reviews Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, now playing a limited sold-out season at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
29 August 2019
If you are unaware of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, her creation Fleabag and the subsequent series, then you are seriously out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist! The monologue was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, won award after award, and was nominated for an Olivier award following a run at the Soho Theatre. The rest is legendary, she is now one of the most revered and loved writers and performers the UK has. Now the play makes its West End debut, a final lap of honour for Fleabag, and you can feel the love for Waller-Bridge as you enter the auditorium. A friend mentioned to me that this show, which has completely sold out its run, even the most expensive tickets, in which the queue for day seats begin in the early hours, and has a daily lottery, is “critic proof”. Well, yes it is, especially when the writing and acting is as good as this. (The second series of Killing Eve was crushingly disappointing because Waller-Bridge was not on writing duties.)
The best way to view the stage show is to slough off everything you know from the TV series; this is the beginning, the origin story. Fleabags will recognise moments and characters and will be fascinated to note how they then developed. But, for approximately an hour, its back to Fleabag, her best friend Boo, and Hilary the guinea pig and the men Fleabag sleeps with. Delightfully, we also get Joe, a ukulele playing older character absent from the TV, whose profound optimism and love for life challenges Fleabag’s depression. And Waller-Bridge gives a truly engaging performance, it’s a tribute to her that she still loves the character, loves the buzz of a live audience, she does not rest on her laurels. And the play is filthy gorgeous, (The Sun “newspaper” seemingly discovering this years after the rest of us), hilarious in its frankness, and finding a powerful connection among the women in the audience. (And gay men!)
But what Waller-Bridge really nails is loneliness- the loneliness when you are grieving for a dead mother and for a dead friend. The loneliness of promiscuity, when you will do anything and anyone to avoid going back home, loneliness in a relationship, of feeling exiled from your family because you are cast as the “weird” one, and even the loneliness of guinea pigs. And she doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant aspects of the character, sometimes you don’t like Fleabag, but you always understand her choices and you are moved by her as you swing from laughter to sadness.
Inevitably, in a venue of this size, the intimacy of the show is diminished a little depending on where you sit, and this still feels like a fringe show. (The upcoming screenings may actually benefit the live show much more). Nothing has been altered, not the sensitive direction by Vicky Jones, or the design by Holly Pigott, and sixty five minutes feels a little slight, and it would have been good to have had some new material. However, if this is farewell to the character, (and I feel it is time to move on as I can’t wait to see what she does next), the standing ovation is a suitable thank you to a writer at the peak of her powers.