“It’s not fucking funny,” retorts Phoebe Waller-Bridge at one point in her blistering one-woman show, slicing through the audience’s laughter. But Fleabag is funny. Very funny. A riotous clash of confessional stand-up and exposing monologue, the brilliance of the piece is in its ability to land a joke at the same time as shaking its foundations. It leaves you laughing one moment and questioning your response in the next.
As well as funny, Waller-Bridge’s play is audaciously filthy. Her uninhibited protagonist reels off a giddying litany of wanks, threesomes and one night stands, heedless of boyfriends or menstrual cycles. The eponymous Fleabag – she is never offered another name – flits seemingly carefree from encounter to encounter, always on the lookout for the next no-strings-attached fuck. These brief liaisons are at once joyous and grubby, walking a fine tightrope between sexual liberation and humiliation – and not without the odd wobble.
The real power of all this X-rated content, hilarious as it often is, lies in the surprising lack of shock that Fleabag’s confessions provoke. It’s uncomfortable, yes, and the unflinchingly dirty anecdotes necessitate the odd sharp intake of breath, but there is little that really, substantially shocks. In a mirror image of Waller-Bridge’s disturbingly blank expression as she searches through every last genre of porn – gay, Asian, anal – we have ceased to be surprised by the sex that seeps into every last corner of modern society.
It is this over-sexualised society that Fleabag is the ultimate product of. She might have a distressingly one-track mind (“I’m not obsessed with sex,” she protests, “I just can’t stop thinking about it”), but if she does it is as a direct result of the world in which she has grown up. And if this pervasive presence of sex was not enough, the play also hints at the conflicting roles in which women are cast by society. Sexual freedom is popularly portrayed as a cornerstone of gender equality, in a through line that can be traced straight from Sex and the City to its ironic, grittier younger sister Girls, but at the same time women face criticism for pandering to the sexual fantasies of men. Does being a “slut” or disliking one’s body make a woman by default a “bad” feminist?
This is the sort of question that the piece is careful not to answer – at least not definitively. The complex ambivalence of the tone is personified in Waller-Bridge’s dazzling realisation of her protagonist, an individual who is both defiant and damaged. Beneath the swaggering sexual bravado, we see vulnerable glimpses of grief and loneliness, but as soon as she begins to soften Waller-Bridge complicates matters again with another jagged edge, another comic flourish. Just as the script is scattered with perfectly formed gags, Waller-Bridge’s comic timing is flawless, speaking of an impeccable control that is at odds with the spiralling chaos of the life she narrates.
And in the end comedy is the play’s killer weapon. Waller-Bridge brashly defies any claims that women aren’t funny, but Fleabag’s ability to make others laugh is intimately and troublingly tied up with the gathering wreckage of her personal life. The stylistic nods to stand-up are no accident; this is a woman who makes a stand-up routine out of her life, craving laughter almost as much as she craves sex. Through her relentless joking and her pushing at the boundaries of what can be joked about, Waller-Bridge is finally able to turn the piece on its audience, confrontationally folding a personal narrative outwards to make us squirm in our seats. After all, we’re the ones laughing.