Fleabag on Stage Review: Oversexed and Grieving, plus the Perils of Binge-Watching

“I’m not obsessed with sex; I just can’t stop thinking about it,” says Phoebe Waller-Bridge in “Fleabag” — both the “Fleabag” that’s a funny and sad BBC TV series, currently available on Amazon Prime…and her funny and sad solo show, which she’s currently performing live on stage at Soho Playhouse.
I was all ready to tell you about the stage show, which, like the TV series, is about a young woman in London (portrayed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is bawdy, brazen, cynical, and sad. The “Fleabag” at the tiny (178-seat) Soho Playhouse is more or less a revival of Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which made a splash and turned her into a star. From there, she developed “Fleabag” for television in 2016 (the second season is now underway in England), and has since created two new series – one, “Killing Eve,” which is available on Hulu, and “Run,” which is forthcoming on HBO.
I was struck by how the characters and stories in the play of “Fleabag,” told in an hour-long monologue by a performer sitting on a chair on the stage, were mostly the exact same characters and stories that were made into scenes in the six episodes of the TV show’s first season. There’s her boyfriend Harry; they keep on comically breaking up. In the periods when they’re separated, there are Fleabag’s numerous sexual conquests. There’s her superior-acting sister and her distant father. There’s the bank officer. There’s an old man named Joe (who’s not in the TV series as far as I remember) There’s Hillary the guinea pig. There’s Boo.
They are of course presented differently on stage and screen. Although in the stage version there are a few voiceovers speaking the lines of a couple of the characters (the bank officer, notably), Waller-Bridge is mostly just telling a story.  She sometimes speaks as the characters, but even then, she rarely varies her delivery, which is best summed up as rapid and with a British accent, which might offer a challenge to some untraveled Americans.
I was thinking about what the stage and screen versions say about the difference between television and theater in general, and what one does better or worse than the other. For example, there is much more about Hillary, the guinea pig, in the stage play than on the TV series. I guess it’s easier to talk about a guinea pig than have one perform on screen.
In both the play and the series, Fleabag (that’s the name Waller-Bridge gives her character) gave a guinea pig to Boo, her best friend and business partner, for her birthday two years earlier. Boo named it Hillary and turned the café they owned together – that’s the business they were in – into one with a guinea pig theme.
We learn within the first ten minutes of the monologue that Boo “accidentally killed herself” – Boo had only been planning to hurt herself by stepping into a bike lane, as a way to get back at her boyfriend, who had been unfaithful. The information is more dramatically parceled out on TV: In a few early scenes, Boo is portrayed by actress Jenny Rainsford before we realize that she’s in effect a ghost; Fleabag is imagining conversations with her dead friend. (There are also some flashbacks with Boo when she was still alive.) But both stage and TV show hold the most dramatic revelation until near the end.
So, with Boo dead, Fleabag is stuck with the guinea pig and the guinea pig-themed café, which, without Boo, is sure to go belly up unless Fleabag can get a bank loan. There’s a funny bit in the TV series about the café that’s not in the monologue – a man setting up an elaborate remote office (plugged laptop, cell phone, etc.) at one of the tables without buying anything. But then there are things about the guinea pig in the monologue that are not in the TV series, and they are both comic and tragic – and, yes it’s just a guinea pig, but it’s so, so touching.
Anyway, in order to check on my memory of the TV series, I started watching it….and wound up viewing the whole first season. Luckily, the second season isn’t available on Amazon until May, but, for reasons I can neither explain nor justify, this led me to watch the entire first season of “Killing Eve,” which made less and less sense: Why would Eve (Sandra Oh), instead of fleeing, stop the car, get out of it, and walk towards Villanelle (Jodie Comer) who is an assassin and was pointing a gun at her? But I binge-watched the whole season anyway. So, though I had been thinking of producing an erudite piece extrapolating the difference between television and theater in general, I stopped thinking about it. Binge-watching can do that to you.

Fleabag
Soho Playhouse
Written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,
Directed by Vicky Jones
Holly Pigott (scenic design), Elliot Griggs (lighting design) andIsobel Waller-Bridge (sound design).
Running time: About one hour with no intermission
Tickets: $49 to $200
Fleabag is on stage through April 14, 2019. All of the performances, according to the website, are sold out.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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