“Fleabag” by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

at Underbelly, Monday 12th August 2013

*Originally written for Culture Wars*

‘Fleabag’ is your average, twenty-something woman. Apparently. She works in a cafe, has an on/off relationship with her boyfriend and gets drunk a little too often. She talks about sex candidly, openly discussing watching YouPorn and having anal with a guy she doesn’t really know. But we don’t know whether this is because she’s a Liberated Modern Woman or because she’s deeply, troublingly insecure. After accidentally stripping off during a job interview, she works through her life story in this hilarious but deeply upsetting monologue from Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

For all its discussion of sex, this isn’t really a play about night-time bedroom antics. Here, talking about sex and relationships is a conduit for discussing other things and for distracting us from the matter at hand. Early on, she tells us that her friend Boo died recently after throwing herself into traffic, and Fleabag really tells the story of how and why that came about. ‘Fleabag’ (we never discover her name) paints clear pictures of the people in her life – her (ex-)boyfriend, Joe the cafe regular, her dad, her sister, the one-night-stands – and always looks to us for affirmation.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing, making us guffaw with laughter one minute and then become pensive at the thought of what it means to be a “bad feminist” the next. She rattles through stories with a gallop, only pausing to stroke her neck or consider whether or not she has a “massive arsehole”.

Waller-Bridge performs her script with a buoyant, likeable energy, like she’s telling us anecdotes over a couple of pints. Directed by Vicky Jones, she says the whole thing as if she’s telling it for the first time, and there’s enough movement that it never gets boring; in one beautifully drawn out moment, she mimes taking candid photos of herself. Throughout, sound effects and smart changes in lighting add to the comedy, timed perfectly so that they act like punchlines.

Fleabag takes us with her completely until the very end, at which point a subtle twist subverts the whole thing. After the interviewer laughs at her CV, she asks him “why did you find it funny?” She’s talking to him, but in that moment everything we’ve just experienced as humourous has to be reconfigured, and instantly we become a guilty party, just as much a part of the problem as everyone else in her life.

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