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29 August 2019

Saying goodbye to Fleabag

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Phoebe Waller-Bridge first took to her stool to perform Fleabag at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, no one thought we’d end up here, at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, a 759-seat venue where tickets cost up to £160 (and are selling for up to £589 on secondary ticketing sites). 

Following a Fringe First Award, Waller-Bridge took her one-woman monologue, which is by all accounts hilarious, filthy, tragic and affecting, to the Soho Theatre (capacity 140, tickets £17), in September 2013 (then again in May 2014 and December 2016). It was adapted for two BBC seasons (airing in the summer of 2016 and the spring of 2019 respectively), which took off on both sides of the Atlantic. Joined by Olivia Colman, Hugh Dennis and Sian Clifford, Fleabag won Waller-Bridge a Bafta for best comedy performance. The second series, meanwhile, starring Andrew Scott and Kristin Scott Thomas, has been nominated for 11 Emmys. Earlier this year, the live show went to New York’s SoHo Playhouse (capacity 178, tickets going for up to £102). 

All of this is what has led me here, alongside the hordes of journalists and A-listers who come thrashing in, trying not to spill their glasses of champagne, once the doors are open for press night. It’s a pretty glamorous pre-ramble for a show that starts with Fleabag accidentally exposing her bra at a job interview and sees her attack jokes about “slutty pizza”, “just the right sort of gangbang”, “a horrible wank”, and sticking pencils up the arseholes of hamsters – and, inevitably, guinea pigs.

This is, Waller-Bridge has said, the final time she will perform Fleabag. The success the show has brought her has led to her wildly popular TV thriller Killing Eve, and she is even working on No Time To Die, the next James Bond film, reportedly at the request of Daniel Craig himself.

So, six years on, as we say goodbye to it, what is Fleabag now? Who is it for? The audience tonight is overwhelmingly white, female, middle class (by the sounds of things), and clad in Rixo dresses – all frills and elegant waistbands. Most are seemingly keen to get kudos on Instagram. After all, Fleabag is not just a play and Waller-Bridge is not just an actor. Fleabag is a cultural moment and being seen here tonight is saying “I was there – I was part of the zeitgeist”.

It is the show that launched a thousand think-pieces: critics asked “Is it for posh girls?”, stated “Sorry but Fleabag’s priest is an exploitative muppet” and explained “How Fleabag Seduces Us, Then Accuses Us”. But it affected more mundane day-to-day activities too. In the New York Times, Alice Jones noted how the £38 Love jumpsuit worn by Fleabag in the first episode of series two sold out in a day, and Marks & Spencer saw sales of cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic (drunk by Fleabag and the priest) spike in the week after the episode broadcast. When a play makes waves outside simple ticket sales and sell-out times, its presence resonates. 

The jokes and confessions that broke the hearts of its first audiences are of course all still there. There’s outrageous laughter when Fleabag meets a “rodent” on the tube and ends up on a horrendous date with him (and even more when he makes every possible excuse not to go home with her), and a shared gasp when Fleabag’s most consequential mistake is revealed and the bones of a guinea pig crack, tender against her chest. 

It would be easy for these intimacies, which work so well in tiny venues and on the small screen, to get lost in such a big space – especially one where the balconies are gilded, and there are cherubs above the proscenium arch (I wish Fleabag would break not just the fourth wall but the ceiling in order to pull off a pun about them). But sitting in a burgundy jumper, black jeans and loafers – her original outfit replicated down to the red lipstick and up-do – Fleabag’s anxieties and regrets are just as insightful. Knowing how widely they’ve resonated over the past six years only adds more weight to them. 

Are the jokes still as funny, this time around? If anything, they’re funnier. For fans of the TV show who haven’t seen the play before, the pure filth of some of the lines that the BBC pared back, or shook their heads at altogether, ring out like joyous new parables. “I stood staring at a handprint on my wall from when I had a threesome on my period,” is a real zinger, as is the scene where Fleabag re-enacts the dirty photos a former boyfriend requested from her, of a “worm’s eye view” of her vagina which must have looked “like someone had dropped a little bat on the floor of a hairdresser’s”. When the audience roars, Waller-Bridge looks on, nodding in agreement. 

For those who already know the script word for word, there’s something delightful about the way in which Waller-Bridge delivers these jokes again and again, with just the same amount of glee. This time around, when she pauses and lets the laughs ripple in, sometimes for 20, 30 seconds at a time, she seems to be sussing us out, reckoning with the fact that we’ve heard all these jokes before – we know the “huge arsehole” joke is going to follow the “huge penis” joke – and yet we still laugh. It’s remarkable that for a show written six years ago, Fleabag feels bitingly contemporary. It manages to merge themes that feel outrageously on-the-nose (porn, sexual assault, criticisms of modern-day feminism) with subjects that are timeless (sex, loss, grief, sibling relationships). 

Writing a traditional review of something that sold out in less than an hour feels redundant; “If you somehow manage to see Fleabag, which has been sold out since just after the run was announced…” wrote a reviewer of the New York run earlier this year. Luckily for UK audiences, there is a chance to see the stage play, not quite live, but streamed by the National Theatre to cinemas across the country on 12 September. And everyone should get in on the act, because to watch Fleabag is to understand what it is to be a troubled, complex woman in the 21st century – and to know how to laugh and cry about it.

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