Fleabag has achieved the pinnacle of what a TV show can be. Not only is it adorned with praise from the public and critics alike but it has reached the heady heights of becoming a cultural phenomenon. It has also been seen in many incarnations since its humble begins at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. These include Off-Broadway runs of the original one-woman monologue, the aforementioned two series TV show, and a near shot for shot French remake called Mouche.
Back in May, it was announced that Fleabag would be having its final theatrical run in London’s West End. Having already ruled out another season of the TV series this meant the final outing for Fleabag ever. The world (Twitter) lit up as everyone (millennials) scrambled to get tickets to the cultural event that would define a generation. Having spent exactly too many hours in a virtual queue on the Wyndham’s Theatre website instead of revising for my semester two exams, I managed to get tickets to a showing of Fleabag in early September.
So just how does this one-woman monologue compare to the smash hit TV show? Going into the theatre I was slightly cautious that it would underwhelm me. The TV show, especially the second season is so brilliant that I didn’t want it to be tainted at all and I had read some mixed reviews of the performance. Ultimately, I was neither disappointed nor completely swept off my feet.
Firstly, the deft writing that the show is famed for is just as well handled in the monologue. Waller-Bridge’s writing prowess lies in her ability to catch us off guard. She will have us laughing one minute and then whop us over the head with a blow of painful emotion. At other times, a serious moment is undercut with completely inappropriate humour. The effect of this is even more striking in the live show. Fleabag’s matter of fact description of a very unpleasant interaction with a man in a bar is horrifying. Just as this is sinking in, Waller-Bridge adds “But he buys me a drink so- he’s nice actually” whilst smiling. This axis turn is more shocking then anything of similar ilk in the TV show- which is always played more wryly.
The live show is also more desperate than the series. Season 2 of Fleabag has a sense of optimism even if it is still melancholy. Season 1 is more chaotic and angry and sad. The original monologue is a tragedy with a shocking ending that the BBC decided was not fit for TV. This variation of tone from the TV show makes the monologue worth seeing. The viewer gets a slightly different Fleabag in this incarnation and gains different insights. It is also worth seeing for the mere sake of witnessing Phoebe Waller-Bridge on stage. Her physicality is just as impressive as her writing. There is more room to explore the comedy, that came from her askew asides in the TV show, of Waller-Bridge’s facial expressions and posturing whilst imitating many of the characters we are familiar with, most fabulously, ‘Bus Rodent’.
However, there are limitations to the monologue. The world of Fleabag cannot be as richly painted as that of the TV series. Television affords Waller-Bridge more time to explore different aspects of Fleabag’s character. Although seeing a desperate and bad woman on stage is remarkable and needed, I think season TV Fleabag is the height of what the character can be. Waller-Bridge takes on the task of playing with our emotions, through humour and sadness, without just going for shock. The character has evolved and has more to say about what it is to be a modern-day woman other than just the angry and self-destructive aspect of monologue Fleabag. The monologues that come from other characters or sparked by other characters are also marvellous and revealing about the human condition. This is not necessarily a criticism of the theatre show. It is not in its remit to do this. However, it does speak to the limitation of the form whereas as TV has given Waller-Bridge more space to show off more of her genius. The monologue is like a diamond in the rough. Interesting to see if you’re a fan of the show, like a glimpse into your favourite artist’s sketch book, and also of value in and of itself. Yet, television has given us the perfect form of Fleabag.
I am glad I got to see Fleabag live. Seeing the original source to one of my favourite TV shows was a treat. It may not reach the sheer brilliance of the TV show but going in with the right expectations meant I wasn’t disappointed. It filled a different purpose for me than the TV show did. One thing I would say is that I don’t think it is worth the heavy price tag some people are paying for tickets and I think very little ever would be. However, at the more comprehendible prices it is definitely worthwhile. If you can catch any of the NT Live showings across cinemas I would definitely recommend going to bid a fond and sad final farewell to Fleabag.