This has the feel of a victory lap.
Following two series on the BBC, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is now a fully fledged cultural phenomenon. But it began life as a one-woman show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, performed in one of those spectacularly dank spaces at the Underbelly.
This was a fitting beginning for a show that goes to some murky places and delights in probing the wet, fleshy terrain between sexual empowerment and abasement. All the elements are there that would make it succeed on screen, but the stage show is darker and bleaker than the television series it spawned. It’s less hopeful in many ways, but still very funny.
What was abundantly clear back then, and remains the case now, is that Waller-Bridge is someone who completely understands her own instrument and how to play it. She knows just how to elicit those little gasp-laughs people do when they’re not quite sure whether they should be finding something quite so funny as they are, and understands exactly how it will land with an audience when those lines – about cocks, gangbangs and arseholes – spill out of her mouth.
The show went on to snag her a Fringe First as well as The Stage Edinburgh Award for her performance, before transferring to Soho Theatre, where it won her the Critics Circle award for most promising playwright. In 2016 it became the basis for the BBC show that would eventually have large swathes of people on both sides of the Atlantic fanning themselves at the prospect of Andrew Scott in a liturgical vestment.
Following the success of Fleabag, Waller-Bridge went on to pen the first season of Killing Eve, spinning a fairly conventional female assassin narrative into a heady near-love story, and she has recently been handed the keys to the latest instalment of the James Bond franchise, or at the very least been asked to pep up, and presumably detoxify, the script.
Having taken Fleabag to Soho Playhouse in New York earlier in the year, she’s now performing the show for the final time in the plush environs of the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre. Tickets for the run sold out dizzyingly quickly. Some of the prices were similarly dizzying.
Even in a theatre that wasn’t designed with intimacy in mind, it still works. That it does so is testament to how well-constructed a thing it is. The hour-long show is basically the blueprint for the first season of the television series – there are no sexy priests, not yet, and the tone is more caustic – so while we’re introduced to Fleabag’s sister, her widowed father, her dead best friend Boo and the guinea pig café, it’s mainly about a young woman trying to navigate the world, who believes her desirability is the only thing to give her worth. It’s hilarious, relatable and painful at the same time.
The show is initially structured as a job interview, with Waller-Bridge interacting with a man’s recorded voice, but it quickly slips into the direct address that she deployed so well on screen, explaining to the audience: “I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
She makes us a confidant for her escapades as she hooks up with a guy on the tube or discusses an ex’s obsession with her genitals. This is very funny to begin with. But, quickly – far more quickly than I remember from the first time I saw the show – things start to unravel, as she details her various estrangements and bereavements, the fears she carries around with her.
Fleabag began as a 10-minute short piece created for a new writing night hosted by DryWrite, the theatre company of which Waller-Bridge is co-artistic director, along with Vicky Jones. One of the things they liked to do was set the writers challenges, to see what happened when they were pushed out of their comfort zones. One such provocation was ‘funny, not funny’. The idea was to make an audience laugh and then make them stop laughing, the more abruptly and brutally the better. That’s what Fleabag does, again and again.
It’s important not to overlook the role of Jones’ direction in all this. The pair clearly have a strong creative bond (Waller-Bridge would also star in Jones’ provocative, boundary-prodding play The One) and there’s a precision to the delivery that comes from an affinity between director and performer.
It is simply staged; just Waller-Bridge sitting on a stool wearing a sensible red pull-over, but Jones, lighting designer Elliot Griggs, and sound designer Isobel Waller-Bridge help shape the character’s world. Good as the writing is, it is Waller-Bridge’s performance that makes it fly, whether miming a guinea pig doing a little poo or pretending to take vaginal selfies in a disabled loo with a glazed expression on her face. Occasionally, the conversational façade drops and we glimpse something distressed and searching in her eyes.
I now wince a little at all the reviews of its original run – mine included – describing it as filthy, as if female sexual desire was inherently unclean – the show would never have achieved quite such a level of success if it were simply a collection of gags about anal sex and wanking over Obama. It’s subtler and smarter than that, incisive about self-sabotage, grief and the endless pressures women put upon themselves.
It’s true that something that shapes the cultural conversation can feel slightly outmoded by dint of overfamiliarity, that the equation of sexual appetite with damage sits uneasily sometimes, and that this material would play differently if Waller-Bridge had a different accent or looked a different way – though the show knows that – but Fleabag works because it’s such an impressive feat of seesawing. Its victory is absolutely deserved.