Phoebe Waller-Bridge begins her simultaneously entertaining and disturbing 65-minute Fleabag with the title character at a job interview. Fleabag is almost immediately complimented by the interviewer (a non-credited male voiceover) for her having made him laugh while reading her resumé.
Slouching in a chair—the only feature of Holly Pigott’s set, well lighted by Elliot Griggs—and looking uncertain-to-the-point-of-desperation, she mumbles that she hadn’t intended the resumé to be amusing but will accept his response.
The same might be said of Fleabag in its entirety: genuinely funny when it wants to be—and obviously intended to be. All the same, it’s about someone who, at her distressed core and at the end of the day, is living a life not so darn funny.
A rule known to 12-step program members is that no one has the right to take a person’s inventory other than that person. But perhaps a reviewer can claim to be an exception. In this reviewer’s estimation Fleabag easily passes for someone suffering from sexual compulsion—and that’s no matter how amusing she seems. Indeed, she constantly looks as if she’s cracking wise only to protect herself.
Breaking off the opening interview—she’s been asked to leave for unthinkingly lifting her top to relieve the heat—Fleabag segues into talk about her active (overactive?) sex life. Constantly checking out men whom she suspects are checking her out, she reflects on several past encounters and near encounters. Often explicit, she doesn’t stop short when describing one exploit when an aggressively exploratory fellow moved towards anal penetration.
When not running questionably amorous credits, Fleabag discusses the café she has operated with her friend Boo, whose other best friend is a guinea pig that has the run of the neighborhood place. She notes that one reason she’s sought the opening interview is that the business is threatened with closing, and she’d like it to continue, if only, she implies, because it’s something to do. That’s to say, she’d like it to remain in business under her sole management after Boo’s fairly recent and untimely demise.
In addition to the guinea pig’s presence, Fleabag chats nervously about regular customer Joe as well as about a sister. She mentions their long-time rivalry but overlooks it due to money she might be able to borrow to keep the café afloat. Before Fleabag finishes her hour-plus confession—returning to the awkward job interview, which develops a genuinely surprising twist—she reaches differing and odd conclusions with both regular customer Joe and the ever-present guinea pig.
Tall, lean, good-looking and radiating intelligence (even as Fleabag stumbles over her palpable but insufficiently confident intelligence), Waller-Bridge introduced her work at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As a result of success there, she was immediately invited to London’s always-intriguing Soho Theatre, then invited to return in 2014 and 2015. On the strength of those engagements, she created a six-part Fleabag television series, which is about to go into a second BBC series.
Though Waller-Bridge wrote Fleabag on a dare from friends nearly six years ago, she shows up here as the #MeToo movement continues in full swing. Her form of “me, too” is, however, the dark side—less funny as she chats through it. Even then, when it is funny, it’s most often funny despite itself, funny in the way of people attempting humor to lighten embarrassment and shame. In her way, Waller-Bridge also eventually gets around to commenting implicitly on the kind of Harvey Weinstein-Les Moonves men in her experience who’ve prompted the #MeToo rise.
Directed with economy by Vicky Jones and with Isabel Waller-Bridge’s accompanying sound design, Fleabag is an unflinching account of what in earlier times might have been cavalierly dismissed as nymphomania but perhaps now would (incorrectly?) strike some as an unfortunate ramification of woman’s liberation—possibly a misunderstanding of the societal sexual freedom women should own equal to men’s.
By the way, Waller-Bridge is has said that Fleabag is a family nickname. When you think about it, “Fleabag” does sound like it could be a travesty of Phoebe: It does sound like something a younger sibling thinks he or she is hearing.
Also by the way, Waller-Bridge convincingly maintains that Fleabag isn’t autobiographical but perhaps she recognizes enough of herself in the fictional creation that she wanted to bring the version of herself and others like her to prominence in England, prominence that’s led to her creating the notable Killing Eve series. It’s a fair bet she’ll become prominent stateside, too, now that she’s here. She’s certainly making an imposing introductory claim.
Fleabag opened March 7, 2019, at SoHo Playhouse and runs through April 14. Tickets and information: sohoplayhouse.com