Soho Playhouse, New York
The witty, filthy, tragic one-woman show arrives stateside, with all its jagged edges still intact
“I’m not obsessed with sex,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, with that funny, not funny half-smile. “I just can’t stop thinking about it.” Or talking about it.
Waller-Bridge’s witty, filthy, semi-devastating solo show Fleabag, which played at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, became a TV series three years ago, and has come to New York for a supremely sold out limited run just ahead of the second series. (Well, England has it right now, but we have to wait until May because maybe that whole war of independence still sticks in the craw.) The show is all about sex, but sex is just the carrot. Or maybe also the stick? After even a few minutes in Fleabag’s company, everything starts to look at least a little phallic. Lewdness? That’s the come-hither. The sucker punch follows.
Comedy as provocation and ambush, Fleabag’s material will be familiar, and possibly thinner, to anyone who has seen the television series. Still, Fleabag live offers Waller-Bridge in all her mesmeric, rubber-faced glory. And someday you can tell your kids that you were only feet away (the Soho Playhouse is very, very small) when she briefly flashed her lacy black bra.
As the play opens, Fleabag is a youngish woman living in London, struggling to keep afloat a guinea pig-themed cafe afloat following the death of her best friend, Boo. Her love life is the stuff of cheerful squalor with an on-again, off-again boyfriend (he says things such as: “You’re not like other girls, you can keep up,” so he should definitely be off), various friends-with-benefits and pick-ups.
The name Fleabag is never explained. It has a few of the same vowel and consonant sounds of Phoebe. But it also sounds like a new-school/old-school synonym for hussy that hasn’t cracked Urban Dictionary yet. It sounds funny, but also repulsive, which is to say it does the job.
Under Vicky Jones’s direction, the physical staging doesn’t wow. There’s that chair, some lights, a couple of slightly hammy voiceovers that could have been avoided. Waller-Bridge dresses down (though not as down as during the original Edinburgh run), in a sweater and slacks, her hair rammed into a twist. She takes a dynamic approach to her face and body – all the more surprising as she rarely leaves the chair – and has a chiaroscuro charisma that puts you utterly on her side, making you in on every joke. Until the laughter starts to choke.
When Lyn Gardner reviewed the show six years ago, she read it as a diagnosis of a generation of women, spoilt by the easy availability of online porn “who have both a casual sense of entitlement and the feeling they can’t live up to everything that is expected of them”. While Fleabag is so uninhibited she has become absolutely unmoored, the sexual behavior is the symptom, not the problem. This is a show about using sex – awful, wonderful, exciting, deadening, but fundamentally compulsive sex – to avoid harder feelings (harder? Fleabag strikes again), like love and vulnerability. She wanks the pain away.
That revelation likely won’t smack as hard if you’ve already watched the television series. And as the play is so brief, just over an hour, the build is foreshortened. So though the sex isn’t the point, it kind of is. Even in our pornified moment, America still has its hang-ups and a female character speaking avidly and very freely about sex can still startle, as when Fleabag’s eyes light on “a handprint on the wall from when I had a threesome on my period”.
“I wish I could tell you that my threesome story was sticky and awkward and everyone went home a little sad and empty, but it was lovely,” she says.