I laughed for nearly an hour straight and left the theatre sad. There is something heart wrenching in Fleabag, this one-woman play written and performed by a vulgar, expressive and hurting Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the title role. There is a familiarity in Fleabag’s story that stuck with me. A familiarity that perhaps answers Fleabag’s final question: “Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone”.
Fleabag begins and ends at a catastrophic interview of the titular character. Fleabag, overheated and anxious, accidently flashes her prospective employer, which he mistakenly believes to be an offer he has to turn down. Her mouth getting ahead of her, Fleabag is both pissed and desperate, a bad combination for a job interview. The interrogation lights of the office fade and she takes us back to what got her here: a screwed up family, an on-again-off-again boyfriend who does not give her nearly enough sex, and a dead best friend who left her with a failing café she is running into the ground.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s face makes this show. The set is minimal but that is all that is needed as sound effects create the worldsFleabag moves through. The tube rumbles on her way to different bars and different men. Grunts and moans from online porn echo as she both actually enjoys herself and later desperately tries to pleasure herself as a distraction from her crumbling life. The horrific chattering of an animal in pain is cringe-worthy. And perhaps most moving of all, the random and sudden replaying of her dead friend’s voice mail message. Isobel Waller-Bridge, as sound designer, deserves almost equal recognition as the writer for the emotion and comedy.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is exceptional. Set on a simple cream and red square of carpet and a tall chair, Waller-Bridge is raunchy, hysterical and unexpectedly vulnerable. Most impressive is Waller-Bridge’s ability to create completely unique characters with just her voice. For some, it is just Fleabag mimicking them, as with the Tube Rodent, a casual hook-up. However, others she completely embodies, becoming another person. This is most effective with Joe, a loyal older customer who loves people, even the broken ones.
My biggest fault with the production comes from a falseness that hits certain moments. There are times when it feels more like a stand up routine than a story. And some big emotional moments read as practiced, the pace speeding up and volume increasing in a heavy-handed manner. However, those moments are brief and overall the sincerity overpowers the false notes.
As the writer, Phoebe also gets credit for the realistic and often jarring sequence of stories and thoughts that spew from Fleabag’s mouth. As the play goes on, it actually starts resembling stream of consciousness – mind jumping to different ideas and memories based on a word, some thoughts sticking with her for hours: the size of her genitals, sex, her dead best friend.
Fleabag relishes the offensive in an evocative and funny way, but in part it is a mask she wears to hide her need for validation. And funny moments from earlier in the play become tainted and sad. This dichotomy, the utter mess one can make of ones life and still be able to go on, to laugh, makes Fleabag recognizable, even hopeful. She represents the worst parts and fears of ourselves and someone is finally talking about it. And then we can laugh about it, together.