Review: National Theatre Live, Fleabag

After taking the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm three years ago, Waller-Bridge took Fleabag on a number of revival tours around the United Kingdom, before creating a television show by the same name. Her wacky, but unresistably loveable creation has recieved a huge amount of praise, and last night, the National Theatre held a live broadcast of the show in cinemas all over the country. Naturally, I was unable to resist the urge to miss out on such an occasion, and started a review of the piece the minute I got on the train home.

Fleabag follows a young, single, modern woman who responds to the death of two significant people in her life by having frequent and insignificant sex, as well as regularly turning up on the doorstep of her father’s home in the early hours of the morning, uninvited. Throughout the piece, Fleabag appears to be frightened of kindness, and has consequently turned her sexual freedom into another kind of ‘cage’ entirely.

As the curtain opened on the National Theatre, I thought that Waller-Bridge probably wouldn’t have written this kind of show for such a grand stage. It would have been so easy for an extended monologue being performed here to fall flat, with only one performer making space feel rather empty, but the reality was anything but. The intimate nature of a single stool, seating a single actress, on such a prestigious stage was perfect for this style of piece, and Waller-Bridge’s huge, infectious personality filled the theatre effortlessly. Her protagonist, nicknamed Fleabag, placed herself on a red stool in the centre of the stage, and talked her audience through just a few days of her life in what can only be described as a rib-tickling, sarcastic, posh-girl voice… It had only been a few delightful moments when I realised that spending a little over an hour in Waller-Bridge’s company was going to be an absolute treat.

The first (perhaps obvious) thing to point out about Fleabag is that it is filthily funny. Waller-Bridge’s jokes, hand-in-hand with her impeccable delivery, instantly make you snort whilst giggling, forcing you to cover your face with your hands and shake your head, before flicking your eyes shamelessly around the room to see if anyone saw you laughing at such uncompromising comedy. Of course, much to your delight, everybody else watching is doing the exact same thing, making you realise the unsuspecting beauty of the play. However, just as you are comfortable with the fact that yourself and everyone around you are sat on this mind-boggling rollercoaster of a play together, Waller-Bridge deliberately kills all of your unified, big laughs, along with any sense of comfort and assurance that you just gained, with excruciating details of her sex life that draw appalled gasps. (Cue: all of the men in the room grimacing a quiet “No!…”, with pained expressions on their faces, as Fleabag recalls the time that she had a threesome on her period. Amazing.)

If her physical and expressional versatility isn’t enough to win you over (but who doesn’t enjoy charades of a man with a very small mouth and a shitting guinea pig?), Waller-Bridge’s astounding control of her audience, exercised through the use of pause will; the defeaning silence of the seconds before her judgemental eyebrow raise, wicked grin and “Do I have a massive arsehole?” had me in absolute stitches.

The whole piece had hints of stand-up comedy peppered throughout, but the depth of characterisation left me concluding that this piece was nothing but a play, or a monologue, of the absolute best kind. However, for me, one of the highlights of Fleabag happens when the titular character and her sister are in a feminism lecture, and the class is asked to raise their hands if they would trade five years of their lives for their “dream body”. Without hesitation, the pair of them confidently fling their arms into the air, giggling at eachother as they acknowledge the ease of the question. Much to their dismay, they look around the room to see that theirs are the only hands raised. Fleabag leans over to her sister and whispers: “We are bad feminists”, causing another roar of laughter from the audience.

Despite this annecdote being an example of women with “bad” thoughts that don’t align with the ideals of feminism, it is an annecdote that clearly conforms to the nature of most women nowadays, demonstrated by the popularity of the show. Waller-Bridge has actually spoken about this, claiming that:

“A lot of women – and probably some men as well – feel like they could fall into a trap of being a bad feminist, which is somebody who doesn’t tick all the boxes of what it is to be a perfect feminist, or be a perfect spokeswoman for the cause… There are so many potholes in the road. It’s kind of frightening and you want to be able to say the right things.”

In scenes such as this, there is something deliciously appealing in the way that Fleabag tries to resist the urge to say outrageous things to those around her, before saying them anyway. The bald honesty of the way that Fleabag sees the world (as a young woman who sees everything through a sexualised view of men, whilst knowing that she’s not even supposed to admit to that) feels accurate and painfully familiar.

Indeed, I read this scene as a call to arms; working harder to make the feminism movement more inclusive (in that we don’t ‘reject’ women who don’t immediately conform to every expectation of feminists, whether that be in their appearance, opinions or anything else) will mean that our goal for equality is much more obtainable. Being willing to trade five years of your life for your “dream body” does not mean that you aren’t a feminist, just like not wearing a bra, or not shaving your armpits, does not mean that you are one.

To summarise such a complex play in the simplest way possible: Fleabag is as refreshing to watch as it is painfully hilarious, and I left the cinema knowing that I am going to try and live every day being a little bit more ‘Phoebe Waller-Bridge’.

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