Fleabag is filthy. A potty-mouthed provocation of a play that deftly unpacks the complexities of contemporary feminism. But for all its mind-in-the-gutter hilarity, it is ultimately guilty of putting too fine a point on it.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s debut play premiered at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, winning rave reviews and an armful of gongs in the process. Directed by DryWrite collaborator Vicky Jones, whose similarly bawdy debut The One won the Verity Bargate Award last year, Fleabag returns to the Soho Theatre as part of their excellent ongoing season of solo work.
The titular Fleabag, played brilliantly by Waller-Bridge, has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend. But instead of locking herself in her bedroom and wallowing with a tub of ice cream à la Bridget Jones, Fleabag fills the void by wanking to gangbangs on YouPorn and eye-fucking strangers on the Northern line.
Much has been written about the proliferation of pornographic images brought about by the internet age and the likely effect this will have on a generation of young people. Fleabag dramatises these concerns through a character whose moral compass has become, to put it lightly, rather askew. As she freely engages in acts of casual sex, Fleabag becomes increasingly disengaged from any sense of reality and soon finds herself leading what is, by all accounts, a pretty vacuous existence. “I’m not obsessed with sex,” she says at one point, “I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
This knotty subject matter is matched by the play’s formal complexity. Born out of a ten minute stand-up routine, Fleabag still has one foot firmly rooted in its comedy club origins. It’s an hour long monologue that operates like a carefully constructed comedy set, with pay offs and one-liners a plenty. Indeed, Waller-Bridge deals in a Sickipedia sense of humour where nothing is off-limits and everything is fair game. It is knowingly problematic and unapologetically vulgar. It is also, at times, snort-inducing funny.
That is not to say that there isn’t also a desperate sadness to Fleabag. Estranged from her family and isolated from traditional markers of social security, her antagonistic exterior hides a deeply troubled young woman floundering to make sense of the modern world and her place within it.
The problem comes when the play attempts to actively compartmentalise what it’s ‘about’. The fact that Fleabag and her sister attend feminist lectures, for example, feels like something of a contrivance. Indeed, the impulse to have something significant to say on the subject of feminism feels rather at odds with the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude of the rest of the play.
Nevertheless, this is a debut of remarkable promise and confirms DryWrite as a company of genuine talent.
Fleabag is playing at Soho Theatre until 25 May. For more information and tickets call the box office on: 020 7478 0100, or go to Soho Theatre website. Photo by Richard Davenport.