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

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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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   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.


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.


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.


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.

Jack Thorne, Mydidae at the Soho Theatre

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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on Monday, 17 December 2012
Jack Thorne,
December 5th - December 22nd  2012
Soho theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE
Web site          Telephone Box Office 020 7478 0100 
4 stars

Jack Thorne is building a reputation as one of the sharpest observers of relationships among contemporary British dramatists and here his dialogue sparks and flares as the plays develops momentum and along with some excellent acting, it is the dialogue that is the chief joy of the production.

Mydidae incidentally refers to a family of elusive flies, commonly called the Mydas flies, many of which live underground, while some mimic stinging insects such as wasps, as a self-protection measure against their vulnerability.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge

In this frequently compelling and unsettling two-hander Thorne has accepted new writing theatre company’s Drywrite’s rather strange and perhaps a little contrived brief to create a play set entirely in a bathroom: less the genre of kitchen sink drama then, than a bath, basin and WC performance. The two characters have a physically close but somewhat disconcerting relationship, it feels both intimate because of the vulnerability of the character’s nakedness (and there is perhaps no more intimate a setting than a couple’s bathroom), and yet it also feels as the play progresses as if they are also wrapped up in private troubles that hold them together as much as love.

There’s some extremely brave and effective acting by the two actors. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the vivacious, but we realise emotionally broken woman, Marian. Waller-Bridge presents Marian as a shrewdly acted study in trauma and assumed guilt. Keir Charles as her partner David, brings some real feeling of repressed, anger and desperation to his role and his character seems to be struggling to find a way out of where the relationship is stuck. We discover it has become less about positive love than the shared co-dependency of a terrible, shared tragedy from the past and he too has internalised his anger against himself just as his partner. Thorne is also good on suggesting the social class and age differences between the two characters, but while this fleshes out the characters it does not really play any significant part in the unfolding plot. Like too many new plays this is perhaps stronger as a study of characters than an unfolding of meaningful themes and issues.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles
There are more than few surprises as the play progresses, all the more remarkable as most of the second half of the play takes place in the large bath that is centre stage. Director Vicky Jones’ approach is good on the tiny moments of low key domestic intimacy, but she did not cope quite as well when the play switches into a tragedy of melancholia’s horror and its dumbfounded blockages of feeling. If there is a serious weakness to the play then it is that we never find out the details of the tragedy that happened to the couple and the play ends with no sense of either conclusion or a sense of the future. In a play that is as low-key and naturalistic as this one, trying to mimic the tautologies of Beckett or Sarah Kane to achieve a sense of the purgatorial did not really work. It makes the play feel instead rather unfinished and the audience worry that perhaps the past tragedy that is finally talked about very vaguely at the end, would not be enough to explain what has happened to the couple. To some extent I felt that had Thorne been allowed to move away from the brief he had been given rather more he could have created a rather more impressive play which was able to communicate more with the audience.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles.

Last, but not least, I was fascinated by Amy Jane Cook’s design which created a fully plumbed bathroom in the small Soho's awkward upstairs theatre. This is one of the most amazing examples of stage scenery I have seen in an intimate space such as this and ably supports the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the play.

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