BWW Review: FLEABAG, Wyndham's Theatre
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is big business. She's a TV superstar, both comedy (Fleabag) and drama (Killing Eve); a Star Wars standout; and, in theory, the feminist saviour of James Bond. But never mind all that. Theatre needs her back.
Seeing Waller-Bridge interact with an audience, and experiencing her skilful, beguiling, dangerous command of this high-wire live exchange, provides a level of pleasure usually associated with a certain Hot Priest. (Who, yes, was in attendance.)
Fans of the Fleabag TV series will recognise elements of this 2012-originating stage show: the failing guinea pig-themed café, the absent father and uptight sister, the sexual frankness, the anarchic wit, the confessional quality, and - beneath it all - the fear that she is somehow different, wrong, alone.
There's an added charge in finding out how each audience will respond to each carefully considered beat of this tight-as-a-drum 65-minute show. Tonight, there was a wry male chuckle of recognition at the "awkwardness" of sex. A shriek at a story involving periods and a threesome. And it was anal sex - with a perfectly held punchline - that drew a barrage of laughs and applause.
Yet the interest isn't in seeing Waller-Bridge "shock", but in how her Fleabag plays off it - enjoying the provocation, pretending to withdraw a bawdy comment, but doing so with a glint in her eye. The brilliance of the piece is that it doesn't condemn or pity her, but builds a level of empathy for her mistakes, her jokes, her yearning for understanding and connection - even as it revels in who, exactly, unashamedly, she is.
It's also one of the funniest nights you're likely to have in a theatre. The specificity of the humour, and the way it continues to build and loops around to unexpected destinations, is a joy throughout. The spot-on depiction of sibling intimacy, bristling with rivalry; a very London 'meet-cute' on the Tube; the push-pull guilt of being a "good" feminist; the tedious mechanics of sexting.
Waller-Bridge's delivery is impeccable, but so too is her physicality. She's a dazzlingly good physical comedian, whether reeling in great swooping arcs as the drunk girl Fleabag encounters; miming an eye-watering, vomit-based mishap; imitating a date's weirdly minuscule mouth; or showing how her sister laughs tightly at drunken husband Martin's off-colour jokes - a tiny gesture that encapsulates a whole relationship.
It feels freewheeling, giddily so, but the wonderful special edition of Fleabag released by Nick Hern Books records how a dedicated team worked on every beat in forensic detail, ensuring that a joke gets a laugh every time, that an audience gasp is repeated, or that every detail of the soundscape is spot on.
The latter, by Waller-Bridge's sister Isobel, is a crucial component, providing everything from glimpses of other characters to a strummed ukulele and the indelible noise of a distressed guinea pig - and cued live by razor-sharp stage manager Charlotte McBrearty. But most resonant is that, in a recorded voicemail, Vicky Jones voices Fleabag's lost friend Boo.
Just as Fleabag centres on that friendship, and how devastating its loss is, Fleabag: The Special Edition gloriously celebrates the bond between Waller-Bridge and director/dramaturge Jones - a creative love affair for the ages.
The published conversation between them is full of fascinating details about Fleabag's journey from a 12-minute gamble via the Edinburgh Fringe and Soho Theatre to the West End, including the pair learning to disregard other opinions and trust their own instincts when it comes to staging - proved completely right in the final product, its relative simplicity showcasing Waller-Bridge perfectly.
'Fleabag' has become an easy catch-all term, a lazy label for anything vaguely similar or, you know, woman-ish. But the show itself, and this superb companion book, should concentrate our minds on the vital things that Fleabag represents: the importance of initiatives like The Spontaneity Shop's London Storytelling Festival offering a platform to emerging talent; how new companies like DryWrite revitalise the landscape and encourage risk-taking; that female work is not niche but universal, bursting across borders; and that women supporting women equals communal success (see: Emmy nominations for TV Fleabag's female cast members).
In her introduction, Waller-Bridge discusses how a DryWrite event, 'Funny/Not Funny', led to her experimenting with the lightning-fast turn from laughter to emotion that's since characterised her work. It might well pep up James Bond, but it's bloody magic on stage. So, while it's the final bow for her incarnation of Fleabag, let's hope Waller-Bridge still has plenty of theatre in her future.
Fleabag is at Wyndham's Theatre until 14 September. The run is sold out, but you can queue for daily standing tickets or enter the TodayTix ticket lottery. It will also be broadcast to cinemas on 12 September
Photo credit: Matt Humphrey