It’s no secret that Fleabag is huge. Quite literally. Projected on to the wide Festival Theatre screen, writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge physically dominates the stage.
National Theatre Live streams live British (predominantly London-based) theatre to cinema and theatre screens internationally. Over the last ten years, their screenings have reached over nine million people in 2500 cinemas and 65 countries. Aware of the exclusive nature of theatre, I’m a strong supporter of this initiative. Indeed, Waller-Bridge sparked mania after announcing that she would be performing her one woman show for the final time this autumn. And for those of us who aren’t London-based, or cannot fork out the £68 for tickets (nor the near-£600 resale), this is certainly the next best alternative. By offering concession tickets around £10, these screenings are bypassing - if not fully breaking - boundaries in access to theatre.
Projecting Waller-Bridge on the big screen, the minute details in her performance become amplified. Her theatrical physicality, and ability to inhabit multiple characters simultaneously and seamlessly, is dulled down for television. Here though, it shines. Her portrayals of her well-endowed mother, unable to see the floor for her large breasts, and the pursed-lip ‘Tube Rodent’ are hilarious. With Waller-Bridge conducting the entire performance from a single chair, Fleabag’s Edinburgh Fringe origins are welcomingly apparent.
Stripped back of other characters and setting, Fleabag’s emotional outpourings are afforded precious additional time and detail. Her soulless naked photography trips to the disabled toilets, and her closing confession of her own sexual obsession and isolation is haunting. ‘Either everyone feels like this a little bit, or they’re not talking about it, or I’m completely f*cking alone’ - Waller-Bridge’s desperate expression and awkward pauses heighten the unease.
Nevertheless, avid viewers of the television series would recognise the vast majority of the content. The performance is an eighty minute summary of the first series, featuring all of the main storylines,played out in much the same way. I wondered whether the (explicit) content might lose its shock impact. The sharp intakes of breath and stifled laughter from my fellow audience members in Edinburgh, and London’s Wyndham Theatre, tell me otherwise.
Whether you prefer the more complete television rendering, or the rawness of theatrical performance – or recognise them as separate entities – Waller-Bridge’s isolated monologue loudly sounds.
Fleabag was screened at the Festival Theatre on 15 November 2019 as part of National Theatre Live’s 10th Birthday Season.