Phoebe Waller-Bridge performs her award-winning solo show Fleabag (inspiration for the TV phenomenon of the same name) in a live recording from London’s West End that’s in limited cinema release now.
As Kate Prior writes, even if you’ve seen the series (of course you have), the solo performance is quite a different beast, and the best thing about NT Live: Fleabag is being able to revel in the singular, virtuosic performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself.
You loved both seasons of the TV series, you never thought you could feel such undeniable thirst for someone in a cassock, you’ve watched Phoebe Waller-Bridge pick up all the awards going at every possible awards ceremony, and now you and me and every Waller-Bridge fan we know can sit in a cinema and watch the one-woman play that began life at Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 and started the snowball of outlandish success that is Fleabag.
This NT Live recording is one of the final ever live performances of Fleabag from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Following her messy, distracted, whip-smart, sex-obsessed titular character in a downward spiral after the death of her best friend, the 80-minute production is essentially what became the first season of the television series. Told via direct address, and almost entirely from her red chair, it’s a hilarious masterclass in the tragicomic athleticism of Waller-Bridge, who, despite filling a stage rather than a screen this time, loses nothing of her trademark intimacy with her audience. (And don’t worry, if you’re quick, you’ll notice she doesn’t forget you, yes you, sitting in the cinema either).
Even if you’ve seen the series (of course you have), the solo performance is quite a different beast, and there are so many reasons to love this raw and immediate version of the story in its original form. There are several storylines and characters which didn’t make it into the series, and it’s fascinating to trace how the structure was shifted and stretched from condensed solo performance to episodic narrative, and how many of those reconstructive decisions would have been informed by repeat performances to live audiences. Case in point is the placement of the golden anecdote which ends with the incredulous line, ‘…do I have a massive arsehole?’ It’s an anecdote that’s withheld from the captive theatre audience until it eventually emerges to an uproarious response. Yet when it came to the television series, where early audience loyalties aren’t fixed, Waller-Bridge took that line which she knew guaranteed massive laughs and deployed it pre-credits, right from the jump. It was tonal perfection and we were hooked.
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But the best thing about NT Live: Fleabag is being able to revel in the singular, virtuosic performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself. Even while amplifying her performance to a 700-seat theatre, it’s like watching an athlete trained in the craft of making you feel like her very best friend. The script is very consciously constructed in the diverted, conspiratorial rhythms of gossip (“Harry has terrible instincts. Once – I think this might be the best thing he’s ever done – Once, he was in a restaurant – he’s quite shy really – he was in a restaurant having had a filthy night out with me the night before”). Any other actor less assured of the text would labour these conversational railroad switches, but this is Waller-Bridge’s script, these are innately her own rhythms, and she wields them with such shockingly good comic timing it’s frankly unnerving. And like all great comics, she understands silence. One particular pause is held, and held some more, and more again, for no less than 14 seconds before the gag erupts.
For someone who just can’t help herself with the one-liners, as a writer and performer Waller-Bridge is astonishingly well connected to her heart. The stripped-back stage show arguably offers more chance to give depth to the interior life of Fleabag, and sometimes it feels like the darkness that weighs on its shoulders is even stronger in the play than the series. The themes are distilled to a devastatingly simple essence, and the underlying truths about failure will likely still move you to tears, reminding you that Waller-Bridge is as strong a tragedian as a comedian.