If you haven’t heard the name Pheobe Waller-Bridge, you’ve been living under…well, a bridge! The writer and actor has become a titan of British television, not least thanks to her masterpiece Fleabag, a former Ediburgh Fringe show adapted for the screen, the final series of which aired earlier this year. Her evisceratingly reflective work encapsulates the lives of modern British women in a manner so jarringly honest it makes for uncomfortable yet captivating viewing.
It would seem this portrayal of female life is not only relatable in the UK, as Fleabag has taken the USA by storm earning the show no fewer than four Emmy nominations and a viscerally loyal throng of steadfast fans. It is therefore no wonder that Fleabag’s return to the theatre was met with sell-out crowds on Broadway and an equally as successful run on the West End.
Following multiple attempts to bend my schedule to get down to London and view Waller-Bridge’s one woman show live at Wyndham’s Theatre, professional and equestrian responsibilities meant it wasn’t going to be possible, so I was delighted to find I could still wrap myself in her genius via the National Theatre’s live broadcasts, one of which was being shown at my local Arts Centre.
The one-woman show was everything a Fleabag fan could have asked for. The plot was parallel to that of the first television series but, to my delight, delved deeper into the backgrounds of characters other than the protagonist whose real name we are still none the wiser to. Further material focussed on Fleabag’s late mother with previosuly unseen dialogue between the pair. In addition, flash backs to Fleabag’s sister Claire’s earlier years gave deeper insight into her rigid and uneasy character traits, many of which conflict with the protagonist’s, thus impeding on what otherwise could be the devoted, unbreakable sistership the audience is so keen to see.
There was also the introduction of new characters such as Fleabag’s festival saviour and the illusive female with whom she’d had a fling whilst still seeing Harry. This new content was a welcome surprise for a die-hard fan who is keen to consume as much of Waller-Bridge’s genius as possible, especially when Fleabag is said not to be reappearing on our screens in the future.
The monologue was equally as testing of the audience’s tolerance for the unspeakable as the TV adaption has always been. As an audience member, it was comical to hear the almighty gasps taken in unison by the men in the in the theatre as Fleabag recited her’s and Boo’s song about getting another abortion in their lunch break. Not to mention the unceasing references to sex and her enthusiasm for it at any opportunity.
I think what is so powerful about Fleabag, both as a theatre show and as a TV series, is that it is one of the few depictions of a woman stuck between wanting to be a feminist and wanting to be nubile. Waller-Bridge’s character is demonstrative of a woman who has internalised society’s mysoginy so deeply that she values herself solely on how sexually attractive she is to men, but metaphorically has the book thrown at her when she dares to enjoy the byproduct. Her complicated relationship with sex and objectification is one which the great majority of Western women struggle with, but it has taken until now for this to be accurately displayed in mainstream culture.
Leaving the theatre, I felt frustrated that there wasn’t more Fleabag to be had, not on stage and not on screen. I could have sat there for the length of a whole other show, crying and laughing, not least at the squirming of the teenage boy sat next to me who had come to see Fleabag with his parents. I had considered warning him before the show just how embarrassing things were about to get for him, but then again, why deny myself the amusement? If Waller-Bridge has taught us nothing, it’s that the small things in life can prove the funniest – you have to take them while you can.