I was a little thrown, finding out that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show Fleabag is 70 minutes long. Yet I knew I wouldn’t get bored – if Waller-Bridge’s screen presence is anything to go by, her stage presence could keep us in rapture for days. I was right. Fleabag – with its stories, monologues, asides and one-liners – has all the laughs of a stand-up gig, and all the relentless middle-class-sensibility-gutting of a Mike Leigh play. And it’s held together by one of the strongest performers around today.
The curtain is up from the very beginning, so as the audience sit down, chat and read the programme, there’s an empty spotlighted seat in the middle of the stage. It’s exciting; we know who’s going to sit there, and we know the general gist of what’s going to happen. It’s like a concert – especially now Waller-Bridge is something of a rock-star herself. This mood continues as the lights go down and she rushes on stage; the audience scream with applause. It must be difficult, because she’s in character from the get-go and has to delay the opening line to let the crowd settle. Luckily the audience don’t keep this stand-up gig mentality up, and they soon behave as if they’re watching a play. Any heckles would’ve been unfortunate.
In the first skit, Fleabag is at a job interview – she’s arrived late and it’s going badly. After accidentally flashing the interviewer, she proceeds to lose her temper – and then we’re thrown into a monologue about something that occurred a few days previous. In a stream-of-consciousness, Fleabag seamlessly moves from scene to scene and story to story. Most of the other characters are played by Waller-Bridge herself (with the exception of the guy at the job interview) and her impersonations are funny, but not quite caricatures.
This was a sensible choice; caricatures wouldn’t have worked because the show isn’t a comedy, but a tragicomedy. The black comedy morphs into moments of heartbreak so quickly that it catches us off guard. But then, ingeniously, the heartbreak transcends into tenderness and warmth – as it so often does in life. A prominent scene that shows this transition occurs towards the end. Fleabag is describing an awkward sexual encounter she had in her café, after hours. The bloke seems too keen, she’s not entirely feeling it – she mocks his clumsiness, it’s funny-awkward. But that’s before she notices her guinea pig has escaped its cage (it’s a guinea pig-themed café) and made its way towards them. Her partner sees it, panics, and kicks it against the wall. After asking him to leave, in a detached state of mind, she puts the creature out of its misery herself. It’s hard to believe we were laughing less than a minute ago. But then the memories start to form – when this guinea pig first arrived in her life, its unique personality, and her late friend who loved it so much. Suddenly, it’s a gentle and lovely atmosphere.
That this whole scene was performed by one person, with the exception of sound effects, is impressive. The lights are occasionally dimmed and sometimes strobing, but, truly, it’s Waller-Bridge who keeps our attention. It’s easy to see how Fleabag – originally an Edinburgh Fringe contender – became the international hit of the small screen. Her frequent breaking of the fourth wall in the TV show comes from this play. It is Fleabag’s openness with us, the audience – her candour – that makes it what it is. The guilty thoughts of a young middle-class woman, warts and all, is not only great comedy material, but a comfort to all. And there’s nobody better to do this than the flawless performer we see before us.