Review: 'Fleabag' at The Fringe

Ed Ramsey

The guinea pig moment nearly got me. That's a phrase I never thought I'd say, but anybody who has seen the cult classic Fleabag will know exactly what I'm talking about. 

This production of Fleabag at the Underbelly venue of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, was gripping, elegant, moving and enjoyable from start to finish. We start with, and never divert from, a slick but simplistic design consisting of not much more than a chair on red carpet. You would think your attention would weaken, but the script for this play hardly permitted you to look away from its only performer. I've always been thrilled by the prospect of a great one-person show. And Fleabag was exactly why. 

I shouldn't have been surprised at how good it really was, not that many bad scripts get turned into successful TV adaptations after all. But there was something in this play that was superior to any other I'd seen at the Fringe. It's honesty of character, it's clever mix of comedy and melancholia, or maybe it was how transfixed I was with the charisma of its actress.

The play is performed as a continuous monologue, interspersed with perfectly timed voice overs and sound effects, by our main character (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the series and original stage play- also the playwright) who speaks to us about her life in London. She is a deeply intriguing character, her obsession with sex ("I'm not obsessed with sex, I just can't stop thinking about it") has had both positive and negative impacts on her life, and it is almost painful to watch as she demonstrates how helpless she is without her best friend, whom she has lost, and it is beautiful how relatable she is. She is complicated, has done bad things, and yet we are instantly on her side. It is the brilliant perspective writing that bewitches and bewilders us. One of my favourite aspects of this play was the brand new perspective we get on the lives of people like her, and how damaging those lives can be in more ways than one. 

And yet despite all this captivating tristesse, there runs throughout the play a comedic current upon which we are driven through the story, and we leave wanting to hear more. This is playwriting at its finest.

There is a significant difference of style between the stage and TV versions. First of all, there are multiple episodes running at roughly 20 minutes at a time in the latter, whilst the former is simply an hour long monologue. The mood and tone is kept very much the same, but what changes is our focus as well as how funny and interesting the lines are. In the version I saw at the Fringe, which was not performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I found myself laughing a great deal more as well as being less able to turn my head away from the character, or take a pause not to listen. In this sense, Fleabag works better as a stage play, but that is not to say that the series is not worth watching. It is, by all means, very good. I would hesitate to say though, that the performance I saw at the Underbelly by Maddie Rice, was at least as captivating as Waller-Bridge if not more so. But then to be fair, I haven't had the luck of seeing Waller-Bridge in action on the stage, so it wouldn't be fair to jump the gun.