Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Fleabag, Underbelly

Review: Fleabag, Underbelly

Published in The Scotsman, 13.08.2013

Had Martin Amis written Bridget Jones, she might have looked something like this: not um-ing and ah-ing over Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, but fucking both at once, heedless of her menstrual cycle, then immortalising the occasion with a bloody handprint on her bedroom wall.

Rather than worry whether her bum looks big, this 26-year-old woman – named only “the Fleabag” – frets about having a “massive arsehole” after a one-night-stand heads off-piste. She’s so totally liberated, she’s got herself utterly lost.

Let’s make no bones about it: Fleabag is filthy and – speaking as a red-blooded young man – it is a thoroughly disarming thing to watch. A vomited confessional in the middle of an unravelling job interview, Fleabag tells of masturbation marathons, X-rated selfies and loveless f***s in every conceivable formation: this way, that way; forwards, backwards; over the Irish Sea.

Because it refuses to censor itself whatsoever, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s self-penned solo – her debut play, no less – manages to be deeply, darkly erotic, but with all the guilt that bubbles up after taking advantage of someone very obviously vulnerable. The whiff of authenticity only ups its queasiness.

But the beauty of it is that, right up until the last few minutes, you’re not sure that she is vulnerable.

You don’t know whether to cheer her on as a sexually secure young woman or wrap her in a blanket and walk her to rehab. Waller-Bridge corners you into uncertainty. Is this feminism fulfilled or hollowed out? Does asserting the right to be slutty play straight into the hands of men?

Actually, the Fleabag – and god, it feels grubby calling her that – isn’t as in control as all that. She’s a wreck – she just can’t see it and, since Waller-Bridge is savvy enough to present the world through her eyes, neither can we. Everything’s rosy enough and, well, if it’s not, then that’s definitely not her fault.

Gradually, you start to spot the self-deception. This is a lonely, depressed and grieving young woman – but, and this is a masterstroke, that doesn’t explain away her sexual fantasies, only her eagerness to share them. In a job interview, no less.

Lest all this sound po-faced, Fleabag is also full-on hilarious. Not theatre hilarious – polite ha-ha’s you spot a mile off – but sucker-punch funny. Waller Bridge has crafted some great gags – often genuinely affronting – and director Vicky Jones keeps them funny, while resisting the easy rat-a-tat rhythms of stand-up.

Troubling, visceral and – most of all – pressing, Fleabag is a daring debut that makes up its own rules. I’ve never seen a play quite like it.

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