Image: Warwick Arts Centre

“A tour de force of character work and entertaining humour”: Fleabag review

Fleabag is a one-woman play, that was first written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge at The Underbelly Cowgate in Edinburgh in 2013. It was turned into a six episode sitcom in 2016, with Waller-Bridge reprising her role as the main (unnamed) character; it is now on tour with the Soho Theatre, with Maddie Rice performing the show.

The play pulls no punches right from the start. Within the first two minutes, an awkward job interview is cut short after Fleabag accidently exposes her bra, due to an unexpected lack of layers. Fleabag goes on to describe a variety of graphic parts of her life, including her relationship with meaningless sex, masturbation, and hardcore pornography, sometimes with the latter playing in the background. It is a play that is designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable and give all the power to Rice, who commands it wonderfully. The brazen, unabashed descriptions of the events in her life are bizarre, yet completely believable, and that is what gives Fleabag its joy. The everyday of one woman’s life is transformed into a unique and engaging experience.

The brazen, unabashed descriptions of the events in her life are bizarre, yet completely believable

This is amplified by the Waller-Bridge’s script, which is a pleasing combination of shock humour and emotionally-fuelled character focus. This is a hard thing to do for any performer, even when you aren’t describing your brief flirtation with a guy who looks like a rodent (her words, not mine). But Rice does an admirable job of letting those jokes roll off of her tongue, with the sort of confidence and lack of shame that leaves the audience captivated and entranced, not knowing what she will do next.

But each of the jokes and lewd comments are all tied back to the emotional core of the play, giving deeper meaning to each new anecdote Fleabag delivers. These emotional elements are revealed very early in the story: a break up with a long term on/off boyfriend, a business that is slowly going bankrupt and the death of a close friend. Fleabag talks about each of these issues with the same light-hearted facetiousness that she delivers when describing an awkward encounter with her sister at a feminist lecture. But each time she refers back to them, the light façade that she has constructed around herself breaks slightly, allowing the audience to see more and more of her character, and of the underlining sadness that impacts all of her actions. This culminates in a final monologue which casts Fleabag’s actions throughout the play in an entirely new light.

The script is a pleasing combination of shock humour and emotionally-fuelled character focus

Fleabag is, on the whole, an experience for which you should heavily mentally prepare yourself before you enter into it, but which you should definitely enter into nonetheless. Its combination of crude and unexpected humour, superb delivery, and emotional characterisation – all within 65 minutes – is a joy to watch and leaves the audience both shocked and moved. While perhaps one or two of the anecdotes last perhaps a bit too long, the confidence and brazenness of Rice’s performance really makes up for it. The story that Waller-Bridge wrote five years ago is still as engaging as ever and makes for a memorable and emotional experience.

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