Fleabag: Sexy, Scathing and… Sad?

By Mickhaella Ermita

In 2020, it’s almost impossible to not have heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge or her immensely popular Fleabag, which graced our television screens in 2016 and 2019 to uproarious applause as a tract on millennial womanhood. Yet I remained the proverbial rock-dweller. Until a few days ago, my only exposure to Fleabag was gushing small-talk from acquaintances that I never followed up on and the occasional Tumblr gifset of an (admittedly very aptly-named) ‘Hot Priest’. My decision to finally engage with Fleabag was precipitated by COVID-19 and an announcement from Soho Theatre online. In response to the pandemic, they were offering limited-time recordings of the 2019 stage rendition in exchange for a charitable donation of £4. I saw it as an opportunity to see where this cultural phenomenon had all began with an entirely fresh pair of eyes—and for a good cause.

Originally written and performed as an eighty-minute monologue, the stage play premiered at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Waller-Bridge took home a Fringe First award. Six years and six Emmy wins later, it has been revived for a farewell victory lap of sorts. The latter forms the basis of my review which, to my knowledge, is largely identical to the first, except that Waller-Bridge is in a much nicer jumper.

In this one-woman show, Waller-Bridge sits centre-stage as the titular Fleabag (her real name is never made explicit): a twenty-something singleton in London who proudly brandishes her sexuality as if it were part of a stand-up comedy routine or an entry on a CV. Often, her graphic descriptions of her exploits startle the audience into shocked, then riotous, laughter—like when she describes her rote masturbation to Obama speeches or the bloody handprint left on her wall after a threesome on her period. This humour is one of the hallmarks of Fleabag and enough to captivate the audience for nearly an hour and a half—a particularly daunting task given the canny simplicity of Waller-Bridge’s performance. Directly addressing the audience, her monologue flows chronologically from scene to scene, guided and enhanced by Vicky Jones’ subtle direction and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s reverberating soundscape. 

The performance begins with her interview with an unseen bank officer as she desperately tries to secure a loan to finance her failing cafe, which she ran with her best friend Boo. Fans of the TV series will recognise this scenario, alongside many of the other narrative beats in the live show, as much of the monologue’s material is reassembled and expanded upon in the first season. The difference in storytelling technique is obvious: due to time constraints, the stage play is more self-contained, less expansive and trades depth for breadth. Rather, it operates best as a performance showcase for Waller-Bridge, who populates the stage with characters of her imagination while barely moving from her stool. After meeting Rodent, a guy on the tube who speaks “like he doesn’t want to let the other words out”, Waller-Bridge brings him to life by screwing up her mouth like a minuscule anus, the image emboldened by vibrant red lipstick. Another time, she contorts her body to pantomime snapshotting her vagina, obliging a sext requested by her ex.

It is interesting to retrospectively consider the humour and gender politics of this performance in 2020. Fleabag, now almost inseparable from Waller-Bridge herself, was championed as an anti-heroine of the 21st century, who shifted the boundaries of what women were allowed to say about their own sexuality and biology. It was transgressive and taboo-smashing; a shocking revision of the female voice that was unapologetically vulgar, vulnerable and, crucially, unvictimised. In the post-Me Too era however, Fleabag’s establishing character moment—when she lifts her top up to a man recently accused of sexual harassment—is especially loaded with provocation. The 2019 audience of my recording laughed, but I wonder if this was with any discomfort, and how much their response was shaped by prior knowledge of Waller-Bridge’s work. 

Indeed, there is a particular cruelty to the original Fleabag—one that uses fatphobia, rape jokes and domestic violence as punchlines—which has been largely forgotten. With the trailblazing second season being many people’s most recent memory of Fleabag, one is prone to remembering her ultimately hopeful self-redemptive arc over how bleak her origins are. This is exemplified when the true reason behind Boo’s suicide is revealed in the live show. The sheer whiplash of counter-identification I experienced is a testament to Waller-Bridge’s craft: when the other shoe dropped, I felt real revulsion at Fleabag’s actions and consequently got a glimpse of her own harrowing self-loathing. Her libido is shown to be theatrical—punishingly so—and that what first resembled empowerment is more akin to evisceration. In the end, the original Fleabag tips more into the former half of tragicomedy as we discover that her compulsion toward turning everything into a sex joke may just be a maladaptive response to loss and the desperate desire to not be left alone. And it is through this perfect blend of naked confession and comic artifice that Fleabag comes to truthfully speak for all of us through our flaws, despite every attempt to resist easy palatability. 

Immediately after watching the play, my interest had been piqued enough to watch a few episodes of the TV show for context. Needless to say, this spiralled until I had binged the entire series by 4AM. And while I concur with many that the second season of Fleabag is Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece and the perfection of her character, the stage play is an opportunity to see her at her most intimate and foundational—whether that be for first-timers or seasoned fans. 

Watch Fleabag on Soho Theatre On Demand here until 31 May 2020.