The Fleabag live show reminds us there is more to comedy than laughs

As a comic creation, Fleabag is mean, self-involved, sexually inappropriate, miserable and disturbingly excellent company.

“I’m going to stop waxing,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as Fleabag, explains casually to a packed crowd in London’s tiny Soho Theatre. “I met a man who said – well, I say ‘said’, it was more of a yell – how much he loved a ‘FULL BUSH!’ and ‘HOW RARE THEY ARE THESE DAYS!’ Although it was inappropriate at the time – family friend at Mum’s funeral – it filled me up with something. Hope? Relief? I don’t know.

“Can’t bring myself to grow one.”

This short, self-contained moment from Fleabag (the play that spawned the comedy series that was a hit on BBC Three, and across the Atlantic via Amazon Prime Video) gives you a sense of the one-woman-show as a whole. Fleabag leans forward on her stool, delivering devastating punchlines with a deliberately offhand tone. But there’s a palpable sense of grief lurking behind her comic timing — what woman hasn’t felt a strange kind of gratitude when someone around them enthusiastically rejects the beauty standards weighing on their shoulders, even if it becomes infected with guilt later?

Fleabag’s return to the stage is unusual, to say the least. It runs at little over an hour, while the television series is three in total: most of the jokes and anecdotes from the stage show therefore made it in to the BBC series. Fans of the TV show will already know the crushing plot twist that comes at the close of the stage show. As one long monologue, the play can’t contain the chaotic hilarity of the televison version's ensemble scenes (from a disastrous family dinner to a bizarre art show). But this latest revival run sold out in minutes — it is undoubtedly a late contender for one of the hottest tickets of the year.

Of course, it’s the character of Fleabag, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s triumphant performance, that keeps audiences coming back. Fleabag is mean, self-involved, self-loathing, messy, sexually inappropriate, miserable and disturbingly excellent company. Despite everything, you want to be around her.

The audience lean in to Waller-Bridge’s uncontainable charisma, gleeful at filthy lines about “slutty pizza”, “just the right sort of gangbang” and “a handprint on my wall from when I had sex on my period.” Waller-Bridge shapeshifts in front of us, one second bored, crouching in a disabled loo to take a perfectly-composed picture of her vagina, the next impersonating her daring guinea pig, Hilary.

There are still surprises here, not least in the stage show’s treatment of Hilary, who gets a rather more rough ride than her on screen counterpart – a moment that Waller-Bridge finds hysterically funny, even if her audiences are audibly horrified. There are subtler differences, too. Waller-Bridge told me earlier this year, “The play is a confessional piece that happens over three days. It documents three days in this girl’s life when everything goes to shit.”

“It’s the amalgamation and the explosion at the end of something that this girl had been feeling for a really, really long time. Actually, by the time the narrator is talking in the play, everything has already happened to her. There isn’t a big reveal; her secret’s already out in her own life. And so her decision to talk the audience is to say, “everything is fine”. She’s sort of sitting on her secret.”

Like in the TV show, this monologue delicately peels away the layers of Fleabag’s public persona until we finally meet the sad, vulnerable human beneath. So while she begins addressing the audience with raised eyebrows and dirty jokes, our understanding of Fleabag is complicated over the course of the hour.

“Claire comes to the door,” Fleabag tells us, as she describes a visit to her sister, towards the end of her story. “She’s crimped her fringe. I deliver a beautifully constructed joke about it. She snaps at me. Says I have to stop talking to people like I’m doing a stand-up routine. That some things just aren’t fucking funny.”

With her stage show, Waller-Bridge challenges the idea that there’s no humour to be found in depression, grief, and shame. But she also reminds us that there is more to truly great comedy than just laughs.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.