'Fleabag' or 'Your place or mine?'

Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Soho Theatre, 13th May 2014

A girl – let’s call her Fleabag - is attending a lecture on feminism with her ‘super high powered, perfect job-work-super-life’ sister. The lofty lecturer turns to her audience and laughingly asks: who would give up five years of their life for the perfect body? Fleabag guffaws and shoots up her hand, whilst everyone around her stays put.  Fleabag is a horrible feminist and a terrible person! She is the Bridget Jones of the modern day only fiercer, funnier, crueler and much more dirty. 

There’s a revolutionary feel about Waller-Bridge’s brilliant one-woman show although – in an ideal world – there really wouldn’t be. After all, there isn’t anything shocking or new in here. ‘Fleabag’ is about a highly sexualised, cynical, mildly warped and fairly self-obsessed young woman. It is about masturbation and endless porn; dirty one night stands, filthy threesomes and silly sentimental boyfriends. If ‘Fleabag’ had been performed by a man, it’d be lazy and rude. Performed by woman, it becomes a brave, funny and revealing piece of theatre.

At every turn, Waller-Bridge and director Vicky Jones play with our expectations of women - and women in theatre. Surprisingly, for a show that feels so goddam hip and of the moment, the humour is pretty old fashioned. There’s a touch of Tommy Cooper to Waller Bridge and her verbal gags, which often depend on just a slight twist in meaning or delayed punch line. Some of the jokes are so triumphantly cheesy, you half expect to hear the clang of a cymbal. But these are old-school jokes told by a woman about a man and, for some mildly depressing but important reason, that makes them sharp and shocking and relevant.  

‘Fleabag’ is also packed with visual gags which, if performed by man, would feel embarrassing and clichéd. Yet put an old school joke into the body of woman and, weirdly and revealingly, it feels brand new. At one point, Waller Bridge lifts up her top and accidentally reveals her bra. If a man dropped his trousers on-stage we would grown – yet a woman lifts her top and we all burst out laughing. It’s the discrepancies in our instinctive reactions that really get one thinking here. 

There is a brilliant sequence when Waller-Bridge hides inside the toilets and takes a series of dirty photos to send to her boyfriend. She spends a lot of time stretching over, trying to take a photo of her arsehole. The weariness on Waller-Bridge’s face is very funny but insightful too. The boredom etched across Waller-Bridge’s face, as she patiently photographs her boobs, taps into the conflict between men's casual sexual fantasies and the dull and seriously un-sexy physical graft they implicitly demand.

There’s plenty of sex in ‘Fleabag’ put precious little warmth or affection. Waller-Bridge and director Vicky Jones play around with the instinctive connections we still make between women and emotional sustenance. We are repeatedly led down emotional cul-de-sacs. Little anecdotes feel like they might be heading somewhere kind or comforting - until, at the very last minute, Waller-Bridge cums all over her sad little story. Eyes glinting at her audience, Waller-Bridge dares us to expect her to be kind.