Fleabag five-star review – filthily funny show's shattering return to stage

Soho theatre, London
Phoebe Waller-Bridge expertly controls the audience as she performs the original monologue that led to her TV smash

It’s unusual for the text of a theatrical monologue to be republished with the words “now a major TV series” stamped above the title, but Fleabag is a rare piece, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, its 31-year-old writer-performer, has had a remarkable year.

Her filthily funny solo show about a young single woman who responds to two significant deaths with frequent insignificant sex was performed on the Edinburgh fringe three years ago and has had several revival runs around the UK. This latest return to the Soho theatre in London celebrates the success this summer of a six-part TV expansion that was progressively promoted from BBC3 to BBC2 and then Amazon Prime.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
Fascinatingly complex character … Fleabag. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Returning to the theatre piece after seeing the TV series is like hearing the studio demo of a classic pop track, with the difference that Waller-Bridge has been able to go on perfecting the original take.

She sits on a high red stool, acting out a few days in the life of the titular character, her nickname never explained, two years motherless and recently become single and friendless as well. Fleabag’s sarcastic, posh-girl voice interacts with an exaggeratedly loud soundtrack (footsteps, animal squeaks, online porn orgasms) and recorded fragments representing characters such as an ex-boyfriend, a job interviewer and a dead friend, Boo, with whom she ran an insolvent cafe.

Fans of the TV show will marvel at how a single line in the theatre piece reveals the seed of a long sequence on screen: a high percentage of the three hours of TV is embryonically present in the 60 theatrical minutes.

But although television retained the connection between performer and viewer through the most daring use of direct address to camera since House of Cards, the live show brings the extra pleasure of watching Waller-Bridge’s skill at goading and controlling the audience. She deliberately kills big laughs with transgressive details that draw appalled gasps or groans.

Her physical and expressional versatility is even more impressive in the flesh, as she instantaneously creates charades of the conversational style of a boyfriend with a very small mouth, a guinea pig defecating, or the humiliating gymnastics of taking a vaginal selfie.

Waller-Bridge has always labelled Fleabag as a play rather than standup comedy (or, more aptly, standup tragedy) and, under the direction of Vicky Jones, the categorisation is justified by the depth of characterisation. The work of another playwright-comedian, Victoria Wood, comes to mind in the combination of whipping one-liners – the small-gobbed guy is “telling me a story like he doesn’t want the words to get out” – and real emotional heft. The key lines are one spoken by Fleabag – “something to love” – and another addressed to her: “Are you crying?” Frightened of kindness, haunted by a betrayal that proved fatal, having turned sexual freedom into another kind of cage, the character is a fascinatingly complex creation.

Fans will hope for more Fleabag on stage and screen next year, by which time Waller-Bridge should have completed a vertiginous but deserved journey from Fringe First to Bafta TV awards.

  • At Soho theatre, London, until 16 December. Box office: 020-7478 0100.

Contributor

Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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