You don’t need me to tell you about Fleabag. You don’t need me to tell you the well-worn story of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s trajectory from small-timey fringe stardom to telly to West End victory lap. You don’t need to tell you that she’s a feminist anti-hero or anti-feminist or post-feminist, or to trace the layers of backlash along flashpoints of class (she’s related to titled gentry on both sides). You don’t need to tell me that tickets are going for well over the £100 mark (once reserved for mega-budget Broadway musicals) for a one woman show whose only piece of set is a chair – albeit a quite nicely upholstered one.
It’s a weird feeling to be in an auditorium where everyone knows the story, the context, and when to wait for the punchline to land. Normally, that only happens with Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, and even then there’s not quite the same playful teasing quality to the relationship between audience and performer. It feels like a messed-up bedtime story for 500-odd people who’ve memorised the words but need to hear the Great Originator say them anyway. Waller Bridge revels in it, swallows and grins and waits before saying “Do I have a massive arsehole?”
The laughter, when it comes, is seismic.
The audience in Wyndham’s Theatre is so, so ready to laugh, because that’s what the sticky, softly-bursting bubble of hype around Fleabag has primed them to do. Laughter ripples out at the smallest moment, takes on a life of its own, surges up, subsides, then builds again into that sought-after second climax. So it’s a shock how quickly the opportunities for it dwindle; the first ten minutes are just joke-punchline-shudder-joke until you’re breathless, left winded as something bleaker emerges. The audience keeps laughing somehow (discomfort?) but from the uncertain edge of a chasm that’s opened up in the ground, trying to suck us into something deeper and darker.
Fleabag, the TV series, takes the jokes and the gradually paced revelations about the-thing-that-happened in this immaculately crafter short one hour show and spins them out like candyfloss, taking those spiky little grains and making them bulkier – and it has to be admitted, a little fluffier, a little sweeter. Same ingredients, totally different experience. It follows a hedonistic, endearingly messed-up antihero as she marauds through a sequence of events that damage her ego but not, fundamentally, her sense of self. She’s self-destructive and pleasure-seeking. Selfish, but not cruel. And it’s only in the second series, when it’s free of its source material, that it really flies.
Fleabag, the stage show, is a reminder of the rough edges that TV files off. Suddenly, seen live, this feels like more of a conversation with feminism, and what women are and aren’t allowed to say. A strand that also comes out more strongly on stage is the masculine way that Fleabag operates; she takes what she wants, she doesn’t apologise, she makes crude jokes – fat jokes, rape jokes, domestic violence jokes, the kinds women are meant to cringe at. And it’s all delivered in a certain kind of voice; that voice that makes me think of someone yelling imperiously for the gardener across a manicured lawn in a charming period drama. I find myself thinking about how poshness is a kind of armour, one that lets certain women step outside of femininity – like all those Victorian lady explorers, protected by wealth’s invisible phallus and thus able to go wherever and do whatever they chose. The original artwork for the show’s 2013 premiere shows her in a superhero suit, all bravado and sketched-in muscles.
She’s posing as something she’s not, though. Watching her, I thought of Margaret Perry’s play Collapsible from this year’s Edinburgh fringe, which centres on a young woman who loses all sense of who she is after a break-up. Fleabag is always performing. And despite appearances, Fleabag isn’t really a hedonist because she doesn’t really enjoy any of the sex she’s having – not on a physical level, anyway. She just needs it to reinforce her slipping-away sense of her own identity as she grieves her lost best friend Boo. Fleabag is a woman who’s discovered her power over men; when there’s suddenly no other form of love available to her, she lets it destroy her. Or uses it to destroy herself. One of the show’s purest moments of burn-everything energy is when she tries to fuck the old man who comes into her cafe each day, the only person who’s consistently kind to her, the only pure thing in her world except Boo’s spike-haired guinea pig. And we know what happens to her.
Fleabag feels distinctly like a young woman’s story, a time capsule from when Waller Bridge was 27 and insecure, instead of 34 and on top of the world. The invisible elapsed years coat her performance in a kind of knowingness: it’s all going to be okay.
Or maybe it always was. As plenty of other people have noted, this is a story about a certain kind of young woman. One who’s wealthy enough for her money worries to be an entertaining sideshow rather than an all-consuming horror. And, I noticed anew sitting in the shiny press night crowd at Wyndham’s Theatre, this is also explicitly a story about the dubious privilege of being a young woman who’s attractive enough to take male attention for granted, and heterosexual enough to (theoretically) welcome it. Fleabag knowingly jokes that she’s a “bad feminist” in a way that was probably more relatable in 2013 (since then, the definition of feminism has arguably become more elastic, but it still struggles with the idea of women enjoying or using their sexual power). This wry self-description nods to the fact that she’s willing to joke about enjoying being groped by a bald man in a bar – or to voice her disappointment that she’s not raped by the stranger who takes her home at a festival. These are the sticky bits, the moments I can’t stop thinking about. Plenty has been written about how sexy and filthy and titillating Fleabag is but it’s really not – it feels like a quite explicit comment about what it’s like to internalise the desire-based value system that’s projected onto young woman. What it’s like to actually be ‘up for it’, to court male attention with every outfit and welcome each stray glance on the Tube and feed on any attention, however degrading it might be. And it looks fucking miserable.
I’m fascinated to see what Waller Bridge does with the James Bond franchise, because just imagine. The dead eyes of Miss Moneypenny. Honey Ryder’s existential gloom. Pussy Galore’s joyless late-night wanks. But I also kind of wish she’d come back to Fleabag and finish the story, because there’s a massive conversation to be had about where authentic female desire sits in a world that’s so used to locating women as objects-of-sexual-lust, and gets so frenziedly excited about a woman with actual sexual agency. Like Fleabag. And the thing about Fleabag is that we know everything about her except the big yawning unknowable of how she evolves and matures in a world that lets young women express their sexuality if they do it attractively, in ways that are acceptable to men, but is all too ready to shame and erase the sexualities of women who don’t conform to the narrow limited aesthetic ideal of young womanhood. Does she go back to those feminist lectures? Or does she burn out her own path? Waller-Bridge has said (maybe jokingly) that she wants to return to Fleabag when she’s “like, 45 or 50” and that’s a story I don’t know, and want to.
Fleabag is on at Wyndham’s Theatre until 14th September. More info here.