by Samuel L. Leiter
I’ve been to the Soho Playhouse many times but never have I seen such a crowd of well-dressed, excitedly buzzing theatergoers standing outside on Vandam Street waiting for a show there to begin. Inside, they squeezed into the cramped seats to watch a one-woman play called Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
She’s the writer-actress who made the title character famous in a popular British TV comedy-drama series inspired by the play following its award-winning appearance at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival. (She also created, wrote, and stars in TV’s Killing Eve)
Fleabag is sold out. The biggest stars are trekking downtown to see it. A reviewer friend sat in front of James Franco. I shared my attention with the stage and a rear view of the heads of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, the latter being a costar in The Favourite with Olivia Colman, Fleabag’s godmother in the TV series.
So what’s this thing called Fleabag? The title is the unexplained name of the 30ish London woman, embodied by Waller-Bridge, who, wearing tight, navy slacks and a loose, reddish top, recounts her experiences while sitting on a stool on an empty, black stage, designed by Holly Pigott and lit by Elliot Briggs.
Under Vicky Jones’s precisely-calibrated direction, and aided greatly by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music and sound design, the experiences of the high-cheekboned, toothy Fleabag play out over a little more than an hour like a self-mocking, shaggy dog story; its overtones of pathos sometimes border on the confessional, especially in a painfully revelatory speech about all the fucking in her life.
It keeps deflecting to side stories, all of which somehow cohere into a pattern revealing the defense mechanisms against loneliness, guilt, and self-destructiveness she deploys. Sometimes we hear the recorded voice of someone she’s talking to, and sometimes she herself changes her voice to represent another.
Fleabag is trying without much success to conform to the standards of being a modern feminist while driven by the demons of a supercharged libido. Her response during a feminist lecture to a question asking who would give up five years of their life to have a perfect body gets a huge laugh.
Whenever her boyfriend, Harry, breaks up with her, Fleabag, who also drinks too much, responds by either having sexual encounters with a variety of pickups, or “wanking” furiously to Internet porn when she’s not otherwise engaged. Sex so consumes her she even calls a slice of pizza “slutty,” telling us “I mean, the bitch was dripping.” She insists: “I’m not obsessed with sex.” Pause. “I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
So go expecting raunchy language and naughty images as she describes her romps with a series of men, like the one she met on the Tube, whose face makes her call him Tube Rodent. She comes off as someone unable to prevent herself from saying or doing inappropriate things, and whose humor often springs from how she’ll make a perfectly rational statement and follow with something totally unexpected.
She also shares intimate images of her anatomy freely with her partners, as in the show’s funniest scene, when we watch her miming just what taking such pics entails while hearing the heaving responses of the guy she’s sending them to.
What little dramatic arc the rambling narrative has is connected to a guilty secret in her relationship with Boo, her late friend. Boo owned the guinea pig-themed café (yes, you read that right) Fleabag has managed (and whose financial demise she’s trying to prevent) since Boo died. That happened when, depressed about a breakup, Boo’s plan to win her boyfriend back went tragically awry.
Waller-Bridge is a natural, a friendly, slightly kooky, but familiar-seeming woman who has a knack for saying socially awkward stuff in a straight-faced, dryly offhand manner. It’s the kind of thing certain other British comic actors, like Ricky Gervais, do so masterfully. She’s also mastered the art of using her body, hands, and face, even while seated, to suggest a myriad of things with perfect timing. The way she twists her mouth to picture Tube Rodent is priceless.
From the first lines, there was far more laughter than I myself took part in. There are undoubtedly some great bits (I nearly wet myself at her response to a bit about anal sex) but, overall, I found it generally more lightly amusing than earth-shatteringly sidesplitting.
But that’s me. You may even clap as loudly when it’s over as did Daniel and Rachel.
Photos: Joan Marcus