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Theatre in Review: Fleabag (Soho Playhouse)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I'm late to the Phoebe Waller-Bridge party, but now that I'm here, I'm inclined to stay and stay. If, like me, you haven't become attached to Fleabag, the hit video series, this solo show would be an excellent place to start, as it is the origin story. It will also hook you up with a comic actress who, gifted with an English rose face, perfectly polished manner, and posh diction -- really, you could cast her in The Julie Andrews Story -- gets away with some of the most scabrous jokes imaginable. It will give you an idea of its author's humor when I report that Fleabag is the name of the heroine -- and she does everything she can to live up to it.

When we first meet Fleabag, she is applying for a job. Adding to this already awkward scenario is the fact that the firm has been rocked by a scandal having to do with sexual harassment. The interview goes spectacularly badly, reaching its pinnacle of embarrassment when, complaining of the heat, she pulls up her sweater, forgetting that all she has on underneath is a bra. (It's a classic farce bit, right out of a Carry On film or an episode of Are You Being Served?) Having inadvertently flashed her prospective employer, the scene freezes, and, addressing us, she explains how she reached this sorry state.

Fleabag is the proprietor of a London café, a position she shared with her late friend, Boo. (The café has a guinea pig theme, thanks to the presence of Hilary, a winsome rodent who was a birthday present for Boo and stayed on, becoming a popular attraction.) As the main part of this solo show begins, the place is on the skids and will close unless Fleabag can raise five thousand pounds. Indeed, her entire life is in disarray. The following will give you a good idea of what awaits you at the Soho Playhouse: She says, "Suddenly I was on YouPorn, having a horrible wank." After a beat, she adds, "Found just the right sort of gangbang." Timing the next pause, exquisitely, she notes, "Now that really knocked me out, so I put my computer away, leaned over, kissed my boyfriend, Harry, goodnight, and went to sleep."

This is exactly the kind of joke that usually leaves me cold, yet Waller-Bridge, sorceress that she is, had me laughing helplessly. The reason, I think, is her delivery. Speaking to us in a just-us-girlfriends manner, all smiles and sparkling eyes, she shares with us, in a voice that suggests she is just gasping for a good cup of tea, clinical sexual details, brutal assessments of those she dislikes (i.e., everyone), and other scalding observations. These include the fact that her sister, Claire, signals the onset of PMS with new and unflattering coiffures; Fleabag's attempt at picking up a man on the London Underground, who, because he has a notably small mouth, she nicknames Tube Rodent; the mortifying feminist lecture during which the speaker says, "Please raise your hands if you would trade your life for the 'perfect body'," the only takers being Fleabag and Claire; and, in a disquisition on sexting, a riotous depiction of the challenges that come with sitting in a toilet stall and trying to photograph your vagina with a smartphone. "It exhausted me, but you've got to do it," she notes, waving away all that effort. "Can't have them looking elsewhere."

Waller-Bridge is such a confident entertainer that one might not notice at first that Fleabag is skidding badly, sliding down a chute of endless booze and meaningless sex, all designed to disguise her mysterious self-loathing. By degrees, the truth comes out: Her boyfriend, humiliated, flees in fury; Claire turns on her following an allegation involving inappropriate groping at a family Christmas party; and Fleabag keeps turning up, totally blotto, in the middle of the night at the doorstep of her increasingly disgusted father. I can't bring myself to discuss the fate of Hilary, the guinea pig, which provoked a moan of dismay from the audience. Indeed, the only person Fleabag is determined to cherish is the late Boo -- until, propelled by her own self-lacerating honesty, she reveals the betrayal that set her on her self-destructive path.

Fleabag runs little more than an hour, but Waller-Bridge steers us confidently from the comic horrors of the London singleton life into some very, very dark waters. She does so with unerring technical skill and a kind of cockeyed compassion for Fleabag; if she is a monster, she is an all-too-recognizably human one.

The production has the most minimal set design imaginable, by Holly Pigott, but Elliot Griggs' lighting helps to shape the evening's dramatic arc, and the music and sound, by Isobel Waller-Bridge, are crucial to the show's effect, not least for supplying the offstage voice of the job interviewer. All the design elements help to establish the feeling of intimacy that is a central part of the author/star's distinctive, savage sense of humor. A slick comic routine wedded to a cry of despair, Fleabag is both perfectly awful and awfully perfect, providing confirmation that sometimes life is so awful that you simply have to laugh. -- David Barbour

(19 March 2019)

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