Review: Need a laugh? Stream the stage version of ‘Fleabag’ for loads of conspiratorial fun
“I have a horrible feeling I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, mannish-looking, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
“Well… you get all that from your mother.”
This little exchange from “Fleabag,” the stage show that launched the award-winning television series, provides a potent fix for anyone still suffering withdrawal from the ironic eyebrows and smirky lips of creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The play, which is streaming on Amazon Prime for two weeks to raise money for communities affected by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was one of London’s theatrical sensations last year. After the astonishing success of the critically heralded cult series, Waller-Bridge reprised — for what she said was the last time — the monologue she first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013. (The sold-out West End production, directed by Vicky Jones, was previously broadcast to cinemas via National Theatre Live.)
When Phoebe Waller-Bridge was making “Killing Eve,” the spy thriller she created for BBC America, she kept a draft email on her phone.
Waller-Bridge hit the niche sweet spot with her title character, a glamorous mess whose quick-wittedness takes in everything, including a glancing view at her own rather large blind spots. Restless when in a relationship, she becomes manic when alone, searching relentlessly for sexual comfort to ease the terror of her own guilt, loneliness and helpless fury at the unfairness of the world.
Her lankiness sprawled in a chair, Waller-Bridge makes full use of her body to illustrate the many moods of her character. Stretching her legs as though they were fishing poles trying to reel in a good-size catch, she mines Fleabag’s seductiveness for the gold of awkward comedy.
The play walks us through the character’s coping routine. As though reviewing an extravagant grocery list, Fleabag reports on masturbating to porn after some mental foreplay with Zac Efron and President Obama, picking up a stranger on the Tube with a face she likens to a rodent‘s and sexting from a bathroom stall. There are no other performers on stage, but recorded voices give the actress all she needs to reveal the desperation and depravity of a woman on the lam from her own grief.
The owner of a failing guinea pig-themed café, Fleabag is still mourning the shocking death of Boo, her business partner and friend, who apparently didn’t mean to kill herself but did a pretty public job of it nonetheless. Like the series, the play keeps Fleabag’s own role in this tragedy on the periphery of consciousness. But the secret of the material’s success is the way the protagonist still manages to make a claim of sympathy on us despite all we come to learn about her anti-heroic antics.
Fleabag, even without the most meager hint of the “hot priest” (played by Andrew Scott in Season 2), is also just a load of conspiratorial fun. Waller-Bridge’s eyes glint with a bad-boy twinkle whenever her character gives into temptation, as if to whisper, “Come on, another drink, another no-strings hookup — you know you want it too!”
Emmy nominee Sian Clifford met “Fleabag” costar Phoebe Waller-Bridge on a subway. Their fast friendship inspired one of the funniest relationships on TV.
Like a Tennessee Williams character, nothing human disgusts Fleabag unless it’s unkind or violent (and sometimes not even that!). But the contradictions of a nature at once enlightened and benighted are grueling. One minute she’s empowered, the next abject. A sweaty bald man in a bar aggressively put his hand on her privates, but he buys her a drink, so “he’s nice, actually.”
Claire, Fleabag’s corporate-climbing sister stuck in a bad marriage, is a study in contrasts. A brilliant stroke of the television series was in expanding the character and casting the part with the seethingly wonderful Sian Clifford. The basic dynamics of the siblings, however, are firmly in place in the stage monologue, revealing in exponential fashion the double bind of womanhood.
“Fleabag” is one of those series I wish I would have held off from enjoying until the coronavirus lockdown. Now I flip from Netflix to Amazon to Hulu, only to alight on cable news grimness. This streaming broadcast of the stage production provides a much-needed respite as well as a way of doing a little charitable good. The wicked laughter of Waller-Bridge’s comedy, even in this limited dose, is strong medicine for overrun minds.
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