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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Fleabag
Wyndham's Theatre   Autumn 2019

The monologue that begat the TV series that begat the second series that begat a whole new career and deserved stardom for writer-performer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag has been revived for a limited run.

And despite reports that it is completely sold out, I urge you to find your way to a ticket.

A simultaneously heartbreaking and uninterruptedly hilarious portrait of a young woman drowning in irresponsible self-indulgence, Fleabag won every award going at its Edinburgh Fringe debut in 2013 and subsequent transfers to London, New York, Australia and everywhere else.

Both as writer and actor, and with the invaluable guidance of director Vicky Jones, Waller-Bridge brings her slightly grotesque but wholly believable character to life while just sitting on a stool on a bare stage.

Fleabag (evidently her wryly self-appointed nickname) is a twenty-something woman of solidly middle-class background who is at best floating aimlessly through life and at worst destroying herself. She is pathetic and occasionally repellent and irresistibly loveable and very very funny.

When I first saw the monologue in 2013 – see my original review below – it seemed to be about someone coming out of the extended adolescence of university and resisting adulthood with all her might, with some hopeful hints near the end that she was finally ready to begin the process of growing up.

The thrust of the story seems to have changed, and I don't know if playwright Waller-Bridge has rewritten it, actor Waller-Bridge is playing it differently, or I am just hearing it with six-years-older ears.

This time around Fleabag seems less resistant to responsibility than unequipped for it. She is clearly grieving more than she realises for a dead friend, faces the collapse of the small business she's been playing at, and is painfully alienated from the sister and father she disdains but desperately wants to reconnect with.

And her compulsive promiscuity, alcoholism and general irresponsibility are not hedonistic choices but the only coping mechanisms in her very limited repertoire.

Have I mentioned that she is very funny? The just-over-an-hour monologue is not just sprinkled with comic one-liners – 'I'm not obsessed with sex. I just can't stop thinking about it' – and comic set pieces – imitating a big-busted woman struggling with a refrigerator door, or a pet guinea pig listening to music. It is made up entirely of them.

There is hardly a single straight line in the monologue, and yet out of all the laughs comes the sympathetic and deeply moving portrait of a woman in pain.

Or perhaps I will make it sound more attractive by saying it is the portrait of a woman in pain that is hilarious from start to finish. In either case, run. Do not walk.

Here's what I wrote about Fleabag in 2013:


Take away the stool on which Phoebe Waller-Bridge perches and put a microphone in front of her, and at least three-quarters of her hour-long monologue plays like a stand-up comic's act as Waller-Bridge, in the persona of a sex-hungry twenty-something, recounts the travails of trying to run a failing business, trying to retain connections to her family, and trying to get laid. The jokes and situations are good, and you'll laugh a lot, but there is more to Fleabag than that. While other female comics use an exaggerated version of themselves to set up the gags, Waller-Bridge uses the humour to build a fully-rounded and not merely comic characterisation. Fleabag is a nice middleclass girl caught at just that delayed moment when university types finally have to grow up, a transition she is resisting with all her unconscious efforts. Her indiscriminate bar-hopping and bed-hopping, which are ultimately more sad than comic, are a last-ditch attempt to hang on to irresponsibility, and her growing awareness in the course of the hour that it is time to give up the fight gives this very, very funny monologue a surprising degree of depth.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Fleabag  - Wyndham's Theatre 2019

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