Fleabag Live: Pain hidden in plain sight

Written by Arts, Theatre

Phoebe Waller-Bridge suddenly stormed into our lives with a loud bang. After the success of her one-woman show in 2013, her critically acclaimed television series Fleabag placed her among the most recognizable and esteemed creators of the younger generation.

This summer the original show was revived for just a couple of performances, and tickets sold out immediately. Thankfully National Theatre Live was screening the recording in cinemas across the UK and as a huge fan of the television series I just could not resist.

A single chair standing in the beam of light constituted the minimalistic set common to one-actor performances. For someone who has watched the television series (twice), the whole concept and story seem very familiar, yet there are still enough differences for the live show to be its own unique thing. I could not resist comparing them, but I do not claim one version superior over the other: the series grew organically from the live show, expanding on things mentioned, but also changing them.

The show unravels as Fleabag tells us, the audience, a story that feels close and intimate, yet she is rarely authentic and honest; her whole life is a performance. For her family, for people she casually meets, men whom she has sex with, for the whole world – she pretends to keep it together as a small business owner, as a woman and as an adult when in reality she is lonely, desperately trying to patch up what is broken inside her the only way she knows how. She is also not honest with us – we are just another audience she is performing for, but perhaps we can get a little closer to the real her. In her world, we are not real people so she can drop her guard down a little more and we can see real feelings and traumas hidden underneath the dark humour and shamelessness.  Fleabag is a woman so caught up in her own mind that she cannot believe in authenticity – that someone can be just happy with life and kind to her without wanting anything from her.

Waller-Bridge is brilliant at writing scenes that subvert expectations as to what her character will say or do, with punchlines that come unexpectedly yet without going ‘too far’ or trying ‘too hard’. Her delivery is top-notch even though she revisits the character she has played many times in the past few years. Her words and acting paints the scenes seamlessly and vividly. Knowing how some of them end from the television series is like waiting for your favourite part of a song, only to discover something new at the end.

The show climaxes after Fleabag hits rock bottom. It is painful to watch as she scares away the only selflessly kind person she had left, after losing the only living thing she had left to connect her to her deceased friend. Yet, the last scene where a bank manager reconsiders giving her a loan leaves us on a bittersweet note – maybe Fleabag is not completely alone in her feelings, and maybe everyone deserves a second chance. Maybe there is hope for Fleabag and so for all of us.

Last modified: 20th October 2019

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