Monday, 30 September 2019

Review: Fleabag (NT Live)

Fleabag (National Theatre Live)
Cert: 15 / 80 mins / Dir. Vicky Jones / Trailer

And so Phoebe Waller-Bridge*1 takes to the stage once more with the solo show that started it all back in 2013, this time at Wyndham's Theatre London for a sold-out four week run. This is a stripped down, black-box presentation. A single chair, built for function not comfort, houses the character. Framed in darkness, sound effects and lighting fill the gaps in the viewer's imagination, while the rest is entirely down to PWB's performance.

And what a performance. Obviously the 2019 audience are already on-side here, but PWB owns the stage, the room and the crowd instantly. We're thrown in medias res with a job interview which is going badly. Flashes of backstory begin to emerge immediately, and before long we're in the midst of a rambling confessional inner-monologue. Many themes and emotions are covered but guilt is the touchstone, the connective tissue between stories, between the performer and the audience.


PWB absolutely shines here, an artist at the very top of their game. Confident without being self-satisfied, vulnerable without mawkishness. It's difficult to know if she'll ever truly escape the shadow of the character she's created, this beautiful snapshot of anaesthetised millennial angst. The phrase 'tour de force' is bandied around far too often in theatrical critical circles, but it must have been dreamt up with this show in mind.

It's just that...

...well, presenting this show now to this audience - which is to say a re-staging of a 2013 work to a crowd who mostly haven't seen it before, but who have almost certainly seen the 2016-19 TV show that followed - creates a disconnect. When the play features routines and scenarios which were later retooled and adapted for the small screen, this draws the audience out of the live performance and into their memory of the filmed one. Even if it's just to take note of the differences. Although if you're able to un-remember the first time you saw something as iconic and starkly touching as Fleabag then this probably won't be a problem for you.


Had this presentation been a recording of the original 2013 run, this wouldn't apply of course. But it's not, and the audience knows it's not. The room - and the expectation - is bigger this time around, and both feel so. Even with the minimalist set and one-person structure, the intimacy we've come to expect from Fleabag is somehow removed. In the TV version, the character confides with the viewer on what feels like a 1-on-1 basis, quiet asides to the tumult of her life. Here, it's a continuous train of thought, at times bellowed into the auditorium*2, at the expense of that personal connection. We still get to know the character and feel every beat of the story through PWB's outstanding performance, but it always feels just like that - a performance to an audience.

Maybe it's because on the small screen she doesn't have to be so animated. The character causes other people to lose their shit and then it's a masterclass in reaction-shots. By virtue of having to flesh out the other characters here, PWB is tested more as an actor (and succeeds notably), but something of that later development is lost once more.


Now, I can't say that the televisual iteration of Fleabag is 'better' than the stage play - they're different media created at different times. But the TV version has been expanded, refined and polished. Even with addition of other cast members (because of them, in fact), it's still undeniably PWB's gig.

If I'd been a proper theatre hipster and seen this in 2013, I'd have been blown away by the show (and this review would be a damn sight more smug as a result). But I didn't. So I saw the National Theatre Live screening of Fleabag the same way as the majority of its audience - as a retrospective viewed for the first time. An exquisite, but crucially imperfect, work-in-progress.

And that's not to take away from the brilliance of the play nor its author and star, but none of us are who we were in 2013, we can't pretend otherwise and that's probably for the best...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Live stuff that's Very Much New Theatre™ and you pretty much know if that'll be your thing before you go in.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you get the chance, yes.
Not least since it looks like that's your only option

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
If the National Theatre ever decide to go down that route*3 absolutely.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Fantasic? Yes.
Best? No

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Entirely possible.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.
Sound-effects feature as well, no excuse

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: L3-37 is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
Don't look at me like that, I've explained why.

*1 Hereafter referred to in the review as 'PWB' since 'Phoebe' sounds too familiar, yet my surname go-to of 'Waller-Bridge' is as unwieldy as typing her whole name each time. And while I'm on, I'll be referring to her character as 'the character', since Fleabag isn't actually her name. It's become slang for the character of course, but she's never named directly, which is sort of the point.
[ BACK ]

*2 On a side-note, there were several inflections and flourishes in PWB's performance here where I thought 'that's like Richie in Bottom. Oh my god, this is exactly how Rik Mayall would play this role! And that is brilliant'. And once that was lodged in my head it was a pretty difficult idea to shift. I mean it as the greatest compliment to both performers, of course. [ BACK ]


• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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