There’s a little bit of Fleabag in everyone. It was this, as well as an increased obsession with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s written genius that I took away from the NT production of “Fleabag” on 12 September. Being a student, I couldn’t afford the £70 train down to London, as much as I wanted to; instead I watched the live streaming at my local cinema. The experience was nothing short of captivating. It was in Phoebe’s use of minimalistic visuals, a single chair encapsulated in darkness with one interrogative yet feeble light above her, that Fleabag’s garish anecdotes invited almost a safe space, for the audience to laugh both at her, and in reflection, at their own selves, with the comfort of knowing that being a ‘greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist’ is okay.
Through her bleak and beautiful narratives, some of which she herself acted out, following her toils with death, sex and family relations, Fleabag gifts us a world we already know, abundantly wrapped in humour, before proceeding to punch us in the gut once we peer in a little further. Acting as the origin of Fleabag’s story with its first production at the London Soho Theatre 2013 before becoming a hit television series in 2016, the performance offers audiences an opportunity to return to Fleabag’s raw form. It offers an insight into the mind of Phoebe herself, via the merging of exclusive material with various iconic anecdotes seen later in the Television series.
I expected this type of structure, and while I relished the classic ‘massive arsehole’ punchline, the casual reminiscence of a particularly messy threesome, a slightly unprecedented sexual approach and the various conversations with her most frequent customer Joe provided refreshing and alternative additions to Fleabag’s chaotic life. These tales of humour, sex and ridicule are bled into Fleabag’s hardships, again via the use of rather questionable sound effects. Left friendless, motherless and with almost no contact with the rest of her family, Fleabag’s glue is her sexuality, her ability to make herself blind to her problems for even just a second through the desperation for desire, for connection. Throughout her monologue we see this ability meandering, until we finally see her lose control of the few things she has left.
Phoebe’s ability to entirely control and manipulate the audience seeps throughout, paired with the minimal set design, the audience are completely vulnerable to her words, and it is her strategically timed pauses and abruptly cheerful statements that take us from heaving laughter to utter melancholy and vice versa in just a few seconds. Fleabag, as seen in the show, talks at us rather than to us, and it is with these continued switches between happiness and sadness that the audience slowly become uncertain of their trust in her, despite always aligning with her humour. The final few moments of the play summarise Phoebe’s construction of bittersweet imagery perfectly, through the use of rather unnerving sound effects the audience leaves the theatre with a cocktail of amusement and despair.
On the note of sound effects, I was quite hesitant about their use when in the cinema, however I can appreciate the effects they elicited in performance. Instead of having physical actors playing the parts of ‘Boo’, ‘Father’ and others (as seen in the series), Director Vicky Jones decided on the use of voice-overs and various sound effects, placing not only a stronger emphasis upon Fleabag and her reactions, but also the creating the idea that these characters are now stripped to the bare stereotypical archetypes they represent. As a result, we grow no attachment to them, but simply observe the unhelpful yet humorous effect they have on Fleabag’s already jumbled life, acting as a metaphor for the isolation she feels within her environment. The repeated use of Boo’s answerphone – with Vicky Jones voicing the role – throughout the performance, was particularly paining for me, and yet clever in the way it continuously undercut or followed various random anecdotes in order to reinforce Fleabag’s inescapable guilt and yearning that no amount of sex can conceal.
So, whether you’re a long-standing fan of the multi-award winning BBC show or not, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 90 minute monologue depicting the financial and mental struggles of an ordinary woman from London, allows us all to both point fingers at and uncover amusement in the everyday pains of modern life.
– Mia Roe