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18th September 2019

The Fleabag Effect

Ella Marsden reviews a live-broadcast of Fleabag and asks how the success of the TV show has affected the stage version

The highly-anticipated Phoebe Waller-Bridge performs her dry, acerbic and at times utterly devastating solo show, Fleabag, now six years on from its original run.

Having amassed a huge viewership, scores of nominations and awards, and a name as a genius of television with a witty golden touch, there is no denying that her reputation proceeds her. Her audience greet her with whoops and cheers, not as a performer of theatre, but as a rockstar. The Freddie Mercury of the West-End, and rightly so.

Those who have seen the television series can recognise the short, hour-long performance as a thinner version of the script. The bulk of the material is recognisable from the popular series.

Rather than a deeper insight into the character of Fleabag, the performance serves more as an understanding of where the now iconic characters and scenes in the star-studded series originated from. Like reading an author’s original notebook after having completed the full novel.

The jokes are now pre-empted by the audience. Nearly all the lines are laughed at, reinforcing the fact that this is not just any one-woman theatre show. This is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and this is where Fleabag came from.

So, why re-run this six-year-old script that has been shot to notoriety through its refreshingly original and electrifying BBC series?

The sold-out theatre could suggest this is an exercise of financial interest. But it is the setting of the theatre that allows the full depravity of Fleabag to show. Waller-Bridge’s manipulation of her face and body to emulate her many and multi-faceted characters is second-to-none. The characters are instantly inflated and become bigger and bolder than when we saw them on television.

It is the ability of Fleabag (the character) to openly and uninhibitedly discuss sex that has sprung the work to a position of notoriety as original and unashamed. The audience squirm at, but ultimately and generally accept, the quips about incest, sexual assault and domestic abuse. It is the high status of Waller-Bridge that allows these highly controversial remarks to go unchastised and unshunned.

This status creates a paradox. It is Waller-Bridge’s boldness, willingness to transgress expectations and discuss sex avidly and openly that has made her so successful.

But now, it is this fame that allows her to make these jokes in the prestigious setting of a sold-out West-End show – and broadcast across the country as part of National Theatre Live. The phenomenon that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge is inescapable. The show can no longer hold the intimacy and relatability that it once did.

Fleabag is filthy and flawed. She is rude, vulgar and hedonistic. She is hailed as relatable and original because women cannot normally act like this. We didn’t used to see characters like this. But now we do.

We have Waller-Bridge to thank for this incomparably brilliant and revealing character and a TV series that is in equal parts stunning and devastating. But, it is time to move on and find new and original ways to write about bold and transgressive women.

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