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Review of Fleabag, written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

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on Saturday, 28 September 2013
Fleabag written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, directed by Vicky Jones

From Tue 3rd - Sun 22nd Sept 2013

Soho theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE
Web site http://www.sohotheatre.com   Box Office Tickets 020 7478 010

4 stars

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is making a name for herself as one of the bravest and most compelling twenty something actors around and Fleabag will not only enhance her reputation, but show she is also a formidable and intelligent playwright as well. This is a post-feminist one woman monologue that verges on stand-up comedy, but with a serious exploration of what it means to be a young woman today concealed within the outrageousness of the character. The title seems to allude to a line in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, ‘sleep with a dog and rise full of fleas’ (probably originally from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack ,‘He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas’); perhaps suggesting that underneath the comedy there is real, disturbing pain.

There is no doubting the quality of Waller-Bridges performance – she is utterly compelling and hideously funny and despite never moving from her chair, such is the intensity of her acting that you aren’t going to be looking anywhere but at her. Her Fringe First award from the initial run of the play in Edinburgh is certainly deserved. It’s an unflinching tumult of rudeness that is often funny because of our embarrassment as an audience and the way it confronts stereotypes about women’s supposed inability to talk about sex in public: what else can one say about a memorable image that Fleabag introduces, where she waxes lyrical about a blood-stained handprint on the wall when she was engaged in a threesome while having her period? Or the way she complains about her boyfriend wanting boring romance when all she wants is sex? If the blistering first half is full of such remarks which show her obsession with sex then the second part shifts into rather sadder territory and we realise how alienated she is from her family and seems to lack any friends – sex more as an act of desperation perhaps than of lust.

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Fig. 1 Phoebe Waller-Bridge at Edinburgh 2013, DryWrite, courtesy Richard Davenport.

In interview Waller-Bridge has framed the play within the dynamics of post-feminist confusion – is it acceptable for a woman to want and enjoy sex? – as well as about the consequences of freely available pornography on a generation of young women turning them into sex addicts who can only define themselves by wanting to be sexual objects. However, while this makes the play more comprehensible to audiences by supplying a straightforward frame of reference, it seems to ignore the central characters all pervasive lack of empathy with others and considerable narcissism;  her self-confessed sex-addiction seems more consequence than cause.

Fleabag simply doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions on other people – either her boyfriend or any of the other people she interacts with – if anything her attitude to sexual partners like her attitude to her own family seems to be governed more by anger and hate. Nor is there much enjoyment in the endless sex she describes, it seems oddly joyless considering its range and variety, lacking in any kind of emotional meaning and her interminable monologue seems to represent a substitute rather than an attempt to capture it. Again, the comparison is with Sarah Kane’s plays, but in those sex and love are transcendent features whose lyrical intensity seems to offer a kind of physical redemption from the cruel nature of the world  – even if that is finally an illusion - here there is little more but a process without meaning and little of any attempt to address the world beyond her narrow horizons. Even Fleabag’s  despair seems cold as a corpse.

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Fig 2. Phoebe Waller-Bridge at Edinburgh 2013, DryWrite, courtesy Richard Davenport.

Yes, things have come a long way from Erica Jong’s emancipatory and guiltless, ‘zipless f*ck’
( Fear of Flying) in the 1970s, or the standard radical feminist critique of pornography embodied in Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces in the 80s, but it isn’t clear how this vertiginous play should be located within feminist argumentative frames. Neither Jong nor Daniels would have understood the way the character betrays her supposed best friend Boo – the one who founded their guinea pig themed café in East London – with Boo’s partner and seems to be unable to acknowledge that this led to Boo’s accidental suicide in the cycle lane. Female solidarity  seems as meaningless as family solidarity. The fact that there may be some kind of melancholic trauma from which Fleabag is suffering – the death of her mother and her father’s over-hasty shacking up with her Godmother -  is hinted at the conclusion, but isn’t followed up, although an analyst might say it seems real enough and would explain her Hamlet like loathing of herself and indeed the world.

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Fig 3. Phoebe Waller-Bridge at Edinburgh 2013, DryWrite, courtesy Richard Davenport.

If I have a caveat about Fleabag it is that the monologue form – while it gains power and focus like a strange version of Beckett’s Not I, with the character rooted to her chair throughout – does tend to enforce solipsism and detachment from other people. While this may be part of the intention, it does mean that it becomes difficult to show alternatives to this particular framing and there are no other real characters who might offer alternatives – they are all seen through Fleabag’s unreliable narration.

Added to this is my worry that insofar as it comes very close to a stand-up (or rather sit-down) comic turn, there is the danger that it becomes simply that. However, stand-up comedy, pace Brecht and Grock, is a problematically apolitical form. If Fleabag is as I suggest in part inspired by Sarah Kane then it is worth noting that Kane eschews the monologue form throughout her career, even in 4.48 Psychosis, because it doesn’t offer the dialectical possibilities of confrontation with the Other and the possibilities of change and redemption. I’d have liked to see Fleabag confront her demons in actuality; sometimes hell isn’t other people, it is just you.

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