Phoebe Waller-Bridge has a wicked laugh. Mischievous, infectious, completed with slight curl of her claret coloured lips. It’s a wonderful weapon, that mouth of hers, and she clearly knows it.
In Spoon, a cafe on Nicholson Street, which sits apart and above the ground-rush of the Fringe, she sips herbal tea and tells me about Fleabag, the monologue she “pushed out like a baby.” Her debut as a writer began as a ten minute short piece, created for a new writing event hosted by DryWrite, the theatre company of which she is co-artistic director along with Vicky Jones. One of the contributing writers had dropped out and so Waller-Bridge presented her own “outspoken, honest, and slightly filthy” account of one woman’s capacity for sexual self-sabotage. Fleabag is a deliciously explicit, button-pushing piece of writing; it’s grubby and sticky and also very, very funny.
In it Waller-Bridge plays the sexually voracious owner of a failing café. Her monologue rattles through porn in all its forms, masturbation, anal sex, and menstrual threesomes in rapid succession, taking delight in being outrageous, in testing the limits, in exploring how far an audience is willing to go with this character. It’s like the theatrical equivalent of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, soiled and exposing, sheets creased and scattered with intimate debris. It’s more than “just fannies and willies” though. There’s a definite note of damage beneath all the wanking and the wine, the constant anytime-anyone-anywhere sexual questing. As the play progresses Waller-Bridge’s character starts to acquire a slightly steel-eyed and desperate feel, though she is clear that the character is not “a victim of anything other than her time.” That said there is damage there, a sense of something lost or missing. “There’s a vulnerability which I hope people will see.” There were also early drafts of the play in which she feels Fleabag went too far, but then “we lost the story; it didn’t feel right.”
DryWrite, which she runs with the show’s director Jones, is a new writing company which aims to push writers “out of their comfort zones.” This often takes the form of writing to specific briefs. She agrees that restriction can be exciting from a creative perspective, posing the question of “where am I trapped and what am I aiming for?” Their most recent production, of Jack Thorne’s two-hander Mydidae, was set entirely in a bathroom, a room in which people are already exposed and vulnerable, a place of purging and cleansing. Performing the play, in which she was naked on stage for much of the time, was both “one of the easiest and hardest things” she has done in her career to date. Easiest because of the gift of Thorne’s writing – “The greatest service you can do to Jack’s words is almost nothing” – and hardest because of the way in which it literally stripped her bare. She was apprehensive about the bathroom brief at first, worried she’d essentially “dug herself into a big naked hole” but she came to realise that the nakedness gave her an interesting kind of power as a performer. I’d agree with this. To my mind it was the play’s earlier scenes of teeth-brushing and weeing in T-shirt and knickers which felt properly intrusive; when she stripped off in some ways she regained control. these two themes – control, the losing of it, and extremes of exposure, both emotional and physical – knit Mydidae and Fleabag together in numerous fascinating ways.
Waller-Bridge, who “always wanted to be in the world of theatre,” has given a number of memorable performances before, in Steve Thompson’s Roaring Trade at Soho Theatre and Hay Fever in the West End, but it was Mydidae that really cemented her as a performer willing to take brave choices; Fleabag further underlines that, creating the kind of character that’s remarkably rare both on stage and on screen: a woman of hard, crystalline edges, confident, capable of aggression, but also a creature of pleasure and relish and appetite. The play is also interesting when viewed as part of a wave of work at this year’s Fringe exploring – and reacting against – the sexual saturation of contemporary culture, the intensifying objectification of women, the seepage of porn imagery into the mainstream. Most vocally and wonderfully Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model but also Victoria Melody’s Major Tom, the Fanny Hill Project and the Figs in Wigs’ We, Object. There’s an underlying anger to Fleabag that comes through, subtly, mingled with the wit of it.
Fleabag will have a life beyond Edinburgh and will transfer to Soho Upstairs from 3rd September; there’s also talk of the character having her own television show.
The play as it is ends on a tiny note of hope. This wasn’t the case in earlier versions but Waller-Bridge believes that “if you’re going to take people to those places you need to look after them, to give them a chance to mend.”