Fleabag is something of a haunted house, occupied by its long-term tenant: the ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come. Now, Phoebe Waller-Bridge – the gift that keeps on giving – brings her inaugural production to the London stage for the final time, six years after its premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013.
Onstage, Fleabag lays bare the inner workings of its successful two-series commission for BBC Three. Cogs and wheels glimmer with the modicum of victory – small, but strong in the shadow cast by the ascent of its creator. Here, Waller-Bridge’s character feels more brittle than that of its TV personality. The latter seems to have been made more delicate by trauma, whereas the former is hard-edged – cruel, even.
Designed by Holly Pigott, the setting is minimalist. Strip lighting hangs over a single chair, a rouged carpet offsetting Waller-Bridge’s flash of red lipstick. A job interview bookends the action, a steady monologue underscored by various symphonies that articulate her day-to-day: the clicking of a lighter, the clamour caused by the door of her guinea-pig themed café, the patter of high-heels on the pavement. A long, strident gait that walks the line between honesty and depravity.
References to wanking, female pleasure (and displeasure) as well as the tell-tale sounds of porn are the roots of what is a provocative, but profound script. The “performance of sex” is a source of great interest to Waller-Bridge’s heroine – one that highlights moments of comedy, as well as introspection. Her blunt use of ‘The F-Word’ makes outrageous a jet-black humour, becoming – at times – a means of teasing her audience, who squirm in anticipation of punchlines. More explicit content sees a taming of spectators also. After a particularly candid one-liner referring to domestic violence, her hands stretch out to meet a chorus of gasps: “I’m joking!” She cries, giving a knowing grin.
That Fleabag is a one-woman-show gives focus to the loneliness felt by its protagonist. A desire to be found attractive bends to a need to wanted, then a wish to be seen. Greif seems to settle in the empty spaces around her too, maximising a sense of loss incurred by the death of her mother and closest friend. Any sense of morality seems to have gone with them, though earlier sex-related hobbies are soon acknowledged as sticking plasters to mask her deep, emotional wounds.
The fact that Waller-Bridge’s words are still able to draw breath from her audience justifies Fleabag’s power. While not as radical now as when it first exploded into the creative stratosphere, the play remains impactful. Fleabag rides Third-wave Feminism fearlessly, its central character suffusing this event with elements of danger. This is the story of one woman in possession of a fierce intellect and a wicked sense of humour – an individual who is more than a mere threat to our social code.
Fleabag is playing the Wyndhams Theatre until 14 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Delfont Mackintosh website.