In a fitting farewell to her fearless, feckless comic creation, Waller-Bridge plays Fleabag for the final time in a West End revival of the original play. It’s the same 65-minute monologue that opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, but the context of the show is wholly different.
Since snowballing, gaining cult status with each transfer and inspiring two blockbuster TV series, Fleabag is a global phenomenon.
When we saw an early incarnation at the Soho Theatre, Fleabag was a buzzy but low-budget fringe piece by a promising newcomer. The stark examination of promiscuity and vulnerability drew audible gasps, and the wry asides to the audience felt thrillingly fresh.
Waller-Bridge may play the same character in the same black skinnies and red jumper, but in 2019 she’s an in-demand creative, a figurehead for feminism, the toast of Hollywood, deified by Vogue, torn apart for being too white and middle class.
She is a world away from the hapless tear-stained twenty-something obsessing over sex to distract from her crushing guilt, grief and loneliness. Waller-Bridge still plays the part she wrote with vitality and instinctive comic timing.
It is the atmosphere that is different: the West End audience clamoured to book tickets (which sold out in moments) and arrive already knowing the tragectory of a young woman over-sharing details of her sex life, greiving her best friend and trying to save her guinea pig cafe from bankruptcy.
So it’s astonishing that the play still shocks. This shorter, tauter, original Fleabag is darker and dirtier than the TV show. Most are familiar with accounts of anal sex and masturbation, but they splutter with discomfort at Fleabag’s half-jokey disappointment at not being sexually assaulted, and everyone flinches at a viscerally horrifying passage depicting an injured guinea pig.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag at Wyndhams Theatre. Photo by Matt Humphrey
Don’t assume that the absence of visuals makes it gentler, either. Director Vicki Jones, who has helmed the show from the offset, sticks with the simple black stage, strip lights and chair. All emphasis is on the words, as Waller-Bridge flits between addressing the audience directly and impersonating other characters. But it's this intimacy that makes it feel so raw.
In a TV series stuffed with stellar actors - Olivia Colman, Fiona Shaw, Andrew Scott - Waller-Bridge is just part of a patchwork of comedy. But on stage, she commands all the laughs.
We know all about the mischievous glances to the audience, but it’s the quicksilver shifts between different characters that show the full force of her comic talents. She goes to town capturing the different quirks, pursing her lips and guffawing as the rodent-mouthed Tube Guy or sharpening her gaze and clenching her jaw as the highly strung sister, and even bopping her head to impersonate Hillary the guinea pig.
The shifts between silliness and suffering are more prounouced and intense in a 65-minute monologue. Along with the well-documented audacious honesty, it the artistry of the writing that's striking. Ideas evolve and spark, becoming metaphors for Fleabag’s own struggle without ever losing the candid, confessional immediacy.
Fleabag on stage is a distilled version of all that people loved about the subsequent TV show: it's funnier, sadder and more intense. But it’s also a reminder of Waller-Bridge's talent as stage actor capitivating a large audience with no props, distractions or co-stars.
As a disclaimer, this particular critic has been a Fleabag devotee from the offset, and the stage show will not convert anyone who found the series too crude, lewd, millennial or priveldged. But for its many, many fans, this little play that exploded into a huge deal more than justifies its hype.
How you can still get tickets to Fleabag on stage…
No less than 50 tickets for each of the 30 performances of Fleabag have been held back to be released in a digital lottery through the TodayTix app. The lottery is being held once a week over the run of the show, with the first on Monday 12 August. These tickets – 1,500 in total – will be sold for just £15 each, with users able to purchase one or two tickets if they get through. The seats are decent, too – many are in the front couple of rows.
Those able to queue in person, meanwhile, can stand in line outside the Wyndham’s box office, where a limited number of £10 day tickets (strictly one per person) are being sold each morning at 10am for the show that evening. Be warned: when shows are as popular as this, punters can be found queuing as early as 6am.
If you don’t manage to get tickets through either lottery, fear not, because you can still see Waller-Bridge play Fleabag on stage. A live broadcast of the production is showing in Picturehouse cinemas on 12 September, via National Theatre Live.
|What||Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, Wyndham's Theatre review|
|Where||Wyndham's Theatre, 32 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
20 Aug 19 – 14 Sep 19, 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM
|Website||Click here to book and for more information|