Reviews of ‘Fleabag’, which won a Fringe First Award at Edinburgh this summer, tended to treat it as a kind of scabrous stand-up routine on the subject of Sex and the Single Girl. It is nothing of the kind. It is an extremely well-crafted and desperately sad play for solo performer.
One-person plays (‘monologue’ sounds like something your great-uncle would perform at a family Christmas) are very difficult to pull off. Without other characters to interact with, where’s the conflict and resolution, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis which makes for satisfying drama? Without them solo plays can degenerate into self-regarding exercises in flabby story telling.
One possible solution, which actor/writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge opts for, is to locate the conflict within the character, so that thesis-antithesis is internal, emotional, leading to a moment of revelation or self-realisation. That she does this while getting out some stupendously funny one-liners is a triumphant case of having your cake and eating it. This is a comic tragedy, with the classic shape of a tragic fall, in the envelope of a character who uses humour as a means of avoidance of all the things which threaten her – pain, personal involvement, commitment, caring.
The thesis is that this is a modern liberated post-feminist, self-confidently taking the initiative in sex; the antithesis is that the guys are all inadequate bastards, any hope of honest friendship died with her best friend Boo, with whom she used to run a café and who died in a road accident leaving her with only a guinea pig, Hilary, and her voice message on her answerphone to remember her by. The play’s events are as succession of bridges being burnt: her boyfriend has walked out (a regular occurrence which this time, we realise towards the end, is terminal); she ruins her relationship with her sister, who might have saved the financially ailing café; she drives away the one warm and wholly good character, old man Joe who is a café regular, by offering him sex (“Go home, darling. I’m sorry. This ain’t my bag); she estranges her father; and she finally severs her connection with all things human, humane and loving, with the traumatic death of the guinea pig, which is, again, sex-related. She is fuelled by a deep self-loathing; enjoys being abused because she thinks she deserves it.
Until the moment of truth: “What if I wrote that I fucked that café into liquidation, that I fucked up my family, I fucked my friend by fucking her boyfriend, that I don’t feel … in control unless I’m fucking and… I wish I never knew fucking existed.” The whole play pivots on punning axis of fuck/fuck-up. However, having had the revelation, and dared to express it, she doesn’t learn from it. She can only repeat the behaviour which has become her essence, in a final gesture which is both defiant and despairing.
If this makes ‘Fleabag’ sound like a real downer, it isn’t. It bubbles with observational humour which, in Waller-Bridge’s breakneck, impeccably timed delivery, has the predominantly female audience falling off their chairs with laughter. The world of porn, pickups in bars and on tubes, leering men and sex texting is something which has, it seems, shaped a generation of women as well as men, both gay and straight. Clearly she has her finger on the button of the zeitgeist. But this is humour of avoidance and self-defence, in the way that the little kid turns into a comic to avoid being bullied at school. The result is a play which can turn on a dime between hilarity and poignancy, which is very tightly written and thematically controlled, and dares to say the unsayable. Not that the sexual stuff is unsayable, but this is a deeply moral play, even conservative, in which supposed pleasure is no pleasure at all.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of those annoying people, a bit like Julia Davies, who seems to have everything – stunning good looks, acting range and depth, and writing ability. I bet she can ride a horse and tap-dance as well. It’s not fair. But we can only be grateful that she has put these formidable talents at the service of such a full-throttle experience. Vicky Jones, who directs with verve, is credited also as dramaturg, so must be at least in part responsible for this lean, mean play.