I really don’t watch television these days, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a fairly new thing in my calendar (and may yet, the spiralling costs of accommodation and train fares being what they are, something I may decide sooner rather than later to stop doing), so I’d missed the initial run of Fleabag when at ran in 2013 at Underbelly Cowgate. Indeed, I had no idea who or what Fleabag was, which led to some astonishment on social media when I simply asked, “What’s Fleabag?” Most responses, though, were very understanding and told me what I needed to know, and I subsequently spent part of my journey up to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe on the Caledonian Sleeper watching the Fleabag television series on DVD.
It’s interesting to note the reviews from 2013 – Laura Barnett in The Telegraph found Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character “distinctly unlikeable… [her] narcissism does grow wearisome”, and Lyn Gardner, still employed by The Guardian at the time, gave it three stars, which by Edinburgh Fringe standards is pretty lukewarm. Philip Fisher in the British Theatre Guide, however, got it right: “For anyone that is not shaken by adult themes or contemporary language, this beautifully-performed, tautly-written play, which could soon become a cult, should prove a highlight of their trip to Edinburgh.”
It is, as far as single performer shows go, highly compelling. Even having seen the television series (and, evidently, I wasn’t the only one in the Wyndham’s Theatre audience that had) and seeing and hearing the storylines that are further developed on the DVDs than they are in the play, it’s still as poignant as it is hilarious. It’s incredibly sharp – Waller-Bridge has a subtle yet compelling stage presence, and delivers punchlines in such a deadpan manner that almost betrays quite how lewd some of it is. One national newspaper, really missing the point, complained about the number of swear words used in the play. Perhaps that journalist who works for The Sun should go and see The Book of Mormon before whingeing about the strong language in Fleabag.
The title character is ridiculously open about all aspects of her life, with the audience ending up knowing more than other characters as she acts as gatekeeper to her own secrets. Even in relatively liberal London, there were a few gasps at the revelation that Fleabag has “a handprint on the wall from when I had a threesome on my period”. Usually, given the choice between the DVD and the live theatre show, I’d plump for the latter. Here, though, other characters are (because there’s time and scope to do so) more fleshed out on the small screen than they are on stage. But it was still very much worth seeing an extremely versatile actor hold a West End audience captive all on her own.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.