Phoebe Waller-Bridge is an arresting looking woman: tall, slim, long of limb, with a kiss curl of dark hair – and a filthy mouth. From those pretty lips spills a stained tale of anal sex, menstrual threesomes, pornography of every stripe and shade and lashings of masturbation. Some of what she says draws gasps – the kind of gasps that begin as half-laughs. There’s still, it seems, a little electric tickle when a good-looking woman with a crystalline voice talks dirty – and Fleabag, which Waller-Bridge also wrote, revels in this, probing and stroking the line between empowerment and degradation.
She plays a confident, aggressively sexual young woman who takes pleasure in the power she has over men. The worst thing she can imagine is someone not finding her attractive. But her strutting fuck-me-or-fuck-off attitude is tempered by an absence, a need, a ghosting behind the eyes.
The solo show initially takes the shape of a job interview with Waller-Bridge perched on a stool under the cruel corrugated ceiling of the Underbelly, responding to a man’s disembodied recorded voice. It then segues into a confessional, with her addressing the audience directly. At first the character is played for laughs. She’s good at pushing buttons with her well lubricated fingers, taking delight in our disquiet at her more outrageous tales (“does this mean I have a huge arsehole?” she muses after an impromptu backdoor festival fuck), but gradually cracks start to appear as we find out that her boyfriend has left her (she claims not to be too fussed by this, is adamant that he’ll come crawling back), she’s estranged from both her father and sister, her closest friend recently died and the business she runs is failing.
All this rampant wanking and sexual questing begins to feel like desperation, hole-filling of a more psychological kind. There’s a beautiful extended sequence in which she mimes undressing and taking photos with her phone of her breasts and vagina in a disabled toilet, click-clicking away with her finger, while her head is tilted to one side, her gaze vacant, the antithesis of eroticism.
Waller-Bridge’s performance is riveting: candid, split open, fruit-fleshed. She expertly manages the release of information, the timing, the tonal shifts and slips. But I do wonder whether, from a dramatic perspective, the trajectory of the piece was a bit too obvious – whether it would have been more exciting and interesting to do away with the damage and make the character even harder and more unrepentant, to really push things. As it is, there were times where the piece made me wince, made me uncomfortable – and then made me consider exactly why it made me feel uncomfortable (would my response have been the same if a man was saying the same things, telling the same stories? I doubt it, though I’m not sure).
Fleabag is a confrontational piece of comic writing, a funny, nasty, sharp-edged account of sexual self-sabotage and debasement that leaves its sticky fingerprints all over your skin.