'Frankly, it's ridiculous!' Fleabag super-producer Francesca Moody

She unleashed Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the Edinburgh fringe. The former actor with the Midas touch tells us her recipe for a hit show

‘We had wine. It was late.” Producer Francesca Moody shrugs as if that combination is where all genius lies. Six years ago, she and the director Vicky Jones read a single-page monologue by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “Someone said we should take it to the Edinburgh fringe.” So began Moody’s journey with the skewer-tongued Fleabag, which brought the country – tipsy, horny and broken – to its knees.

It received mixed reviews that year in Edinburgh but word of mouth spread like a super strain of gonorrhoea. It sold out, Waller-Bridge adapted it for TV and the stage version has triumphed on Broadway and become this summer’s hottest West End ticket. “I remember having a gut instinct that it was going to do brilliantly in Edinburgh,” Moody says, “but I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the success.” She smiles and does an elegant huff to camera, sorry, to me. “Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge performs Fleabag at Edinburgh’s Big Belly in 2013.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge performs Fleabag at Edinburgh’s Big Belly in 2013. Photograph: Richard Davenport

We meet at Soho theatre. Sitting in her red jumpsuit from New York, with cropped blond hair, it’s easy to tell Moody trained as an actor; good posture, well spoken. But she never wishes it was her on stage. “Absolutely not. Terrifying.” She laughs. “I was mediocre at best … This is the job I was meant to do.”

Everything the 31-year-old Moody touches seems to turn to gongs. Last year at Edinburgh she won Fringe Firsts for Gary McNair and Kieran Hurley’s playground drama Square Go and Penelope Skinner’s Angry Alan, a flaying of modern masculine entitlement. This year she is returning with Square Go and bringing Baby Reindeer, by Edinburgh comedy award winner Richard Gadd, and Do Our Best, a comedy about grief and Girl Guides.

Born in London, Moody studied drama at Exeter University and did a master’s in acting at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Producing happened by accident. A friend wanted to apply for funding from the now defunct IdeasTap, but wasn’t under 25. Moody, nowhere near the age restriction, took the lead. She worked part time front of house at the Royal Opera House (“pointing out where the loos were”) and produced on the side. Jones, a contemporary at Royal Welsh, asked if she’d help her and Waller-Bridge develop the repertoire of their company DryWrite from short-play nights to full-length plays. That led to Fleabag. She spent four years as a producer at Paines Plough, a year as executive producer for Curious Directive, then went freelance with Francesca Moody Productions.

I thought producing was meant to be the most stressful job in theatre so throw Moody questions about coping with pressure. She answers as if confused by the idea that any of it is that difficult. Perhaps it’s a desire not to show fault, or maybe it’s the comfort of Soho, which “feels like home”. She’s produced many shows here including, this month, Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s Whitewash, about gentrification, housing and the decline of clubbing in London.

Even in the theatrical hellscape of Edinburgh, Moody is not easily flustered. “I went first when I was 17 and have been every year since, working in some capacity.” There’s a formula to it, she thinks.

Step one: find the right play. “I need a visceral reaction.” She read Baby Reindeer on the train. “It pulled into the station and I had 10 pages to go. I just stayed on the train reading it. I couldn’t bear not finishing.” It’s based on a true story about harassment and obsession. “Like all good thrillers, it keeps you guessing.”

Step two: find the right venue. For Square Go in New York, they went with subscriber-based 59E59. The show was risky because “it’s just very Scottish” but they got the audience to chant and cheer. “Americans love to do that.” At the fringe, it is returning to Roundabout in Summerhall; the in-the-round theatre ideal for the boxing-ring setting. For debuts, size is key. Do Our Best is by Remy Beasley. “Like Phoebe, she’s one of those people you just gravitate towards. She’s an amazing storyteller, naturally funny, not afraid to be ugly on stage.” It is at Ironbelly, a similar venue to where Fleabag was. “Somewhere like Roundabout is too exposing for a first time. But 60 seats?” She nods. “You’re not gonna make money, but you are gonna make reputations.”

In the round … Scott Fletcher and Gavin Jon Wright in Square Go.
In the round … Scott Fletcher and Gavin Jon Wright in Square Go. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Step three: getting people in. “Edinburgh’s a great leveller and there’s a captive audience. You can get the Guardian critic to come and see it and you don’t have to be someone people know. Here [in London] it’s harder to do that … Get a really good PR. Get reviews in early. Then you’ve created the opportunities for that artist.”

Is it really that simple? “There have been some hairy moments,” she admits. “I’ve had to deal with difficult personalities and make unpopular decisions. When things go wrong, ultimately it ends with you,” she hesitates, “even if it’s not your fault. In those cases you need a thick skin.” The biggest risk is always financial targets. “Edinburgh can be a real slog when you’re not getting audiences. You’d be hard pressed to find a producer who doesn’t wake up occasionally in hot sweats wondering how they’re going to get that last bit of money for the show.”

But she never lets this stress spill out. “It’s a huge skill to not burden the rest of the creative team with the worries that go with the financial side,” says McNair. “She kept all that stuff away.” After years of trying to get Square Go picked up, Moody made it happen. “Some people thought it was too weird,” Hurley explains. “But she was just like, this is great, and we’re going to make it.”

This time six years ago, Fleabag was still coming together. Last year, Square Go was getting its gloves fitted. “I’m one very small cog in the big Fleabag machine,” Moody insists, “but it’s amazing to know that something that started off as a tiny little show you made with your friends is suddenly in the West End.” Preparing for the fringe, she’s feeling hopeful – and not just for her own work. “The idea that an Edinburgh show could have that kind of success is more possible now Fleabag has made that journey.”

Contributor

Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

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