Recently, Amazon made the original one-woman Fleabag play that inspired the all-time great TV show available to rent, with all proceeds going to charities supporting those affected by COVID-19. Naturally, I rented the play immediately. I knew little going in. I knew Phoebe Waller-Bridge does the play alone. Obviously, the Fleabag show was inspired by it. And…that’s about it. I went in curious to see just how inspired the show was by the play, and what a one-person version would even look like.
Turns out the play is every bit as good as the show. It’s a different, but equally excellent take, one that somehow manages to hit every single emotional note from Waller-Bridge’s hit show, from the outrageously funny to the heartbreakingly sorrowful.
The play is basically an abridged version of Fleabag’s first season, with a few differences along the way. It focuses heavily on the main character’s grief over the death of her friend, Boo, her sexual proclivities, and her strained relationships. There are familiar stories about Bus Rodent, Claire and the feminist seminar, Boo and her guinea pig, drunk house calls at her father’s door, and such. If there is one thing that may keep the play from completely wowing someone familiar with the show, it’s that the Fleabag play covers such familiar ground.
For me, this was the most impressive thing about it. The play is simply Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a chair, delivering the show’s content herself, with no background set and the occasional second voice to play off of. The whole thing depends solely on her timing and ability to tell a story. She must be an excellent stand-up comic in one moment, knowing exactly how to deliver a joke. In the next, she must deliver vivid, heartfelt emotion.
And you know what? Waller-Bridge pulls it off flawlessly. It is completely incredible just how good she is at pulling off the many personalities involved in this play, and the constant tonal shifts inherent to Fleabag’s volatile emotional state. She brings everyone to life, from café regular Joe to Bus Rodent to her sister. She has pitch-perfect timing. Settings are perfectly imagined through vivid descriptions flowing perfectly as dialogue.
Yeah, I miss Sian Clifford, Jenny Rainsford, Bill Paterson, and the rest of Fleabag’s amazing cast. There is no replacing them. The play does not particularly try. Instead, it functions more like watching its protagonist narrate this story, which is just as raucously entertaining its own way.
The number of iconic, gut-bursting moments in this play line up one after the other. Just try and get through Waller-Bridge’s prolonged reenactment of taking nude pictures for a boyfriend without losing it, or her description of the feminist lecture. The Fleabag play wants to be funny just as the show did, and always succeeds. In some respects, I thought the play was funnier. Bus Rodent was so much better in mimicked form than on the show.
When it’s time for the play to hit hard, though, it hits HARD. Sparsely at first, and with increasing frequency, memories of Boo and the grief involved interject into the story. Fleabag’s funny stories gradually grow sadder as she can no longer bury her grief for Boo. In many ways, the play starts off like a stand-up routine. Waller-Bridge shifts from funny anecdote to funny anecdote. By the end, she has shifted completely into the role of a woman talking through her grief, her anxieties, and her choices in life, trying to salvage what she can of a life spiraling out of control. It is a real-time self-destruction.
Again, it’s a familiar tale to the show’s first season because this basically is the first season of the show but told over an hour-and-a-half. That just makes the emotional effectiveness even more impressive.
There is also a significantly different emotional climax. Where the show had Waller-Bridge’s character self-destruct at her godmother’s art exhibition, the play replaces it with a lonely, intensely uncomfortable moment at her and Boo’s café. There is a clear reason why the show did not replicate this scene, as I can’t imagine it working the same way. The same effect is achieved, that’s for sure.
In the end, the play does everything the show did. From the wildly entertaining situations to the outrageously funny, from the shamelessly embraced sexuality to the crushing guilt and grief, Fleabag has every bit the punch that fans of the show would come to expect. The characters feel just as alive. The story entertains just as much.
Fleabag fans should run to watch this play. You will do a little good and see the origin of one of the greatest shows ever made. You may even end up liking the play just as much. I sure did.