The Streaming Experience: Soho Theatre’s Streaming of Fleabag, the Stage Show
I was in streaming heaven the other night, as one of my favorite television shows coming out of the UK in recent years, Fleabag entered itself into the world of steaming last Friday to raise money for some charities associated with COVID-19. Using our self-isolation as an incentive tool, I had the absolute pleasure of entrapping my Toronto flatmates into watching the television show version a few nights ago, both seasons over two nights. And that was really by reverse force, as everyone here loved Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer and performer behind Fleabag, so much, we could have easily downed the whole thing in one great Fleabag-filled night.
Directed with a sharp wit and impeccable sense of timing by Vicky Jones, who is co-artistic director with Waller-Bridge of a new-writing theatre company DryWrite, Phoebe Waller-Bridge brought her hilarious one-person show to poignant life first at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, and with the cooperation of Soho Theatre, DryWrite, and Annapurna Theatre, a performance from the Soho Theatre was filmed by National Theatre Live. That recorded performance is now being presented for our hungry and delightful consumption since last Friday for three weeks. It’s a steal, as the award-winning show is being offered for streaming through the Soho Theatre Direct website or through Amazon Prime for about $5 with the proceeds going to a few different charities (see below). How can one resist? One really, really shouldn’t.
After getting hooked, easily and quickly, by the BBC Three six-part two-season series, I couldn’t stop talking about the smart sharp show that she willfully exploded into our world. It was so well received and embraced that getting the opportunity to watch the seed that sprang to life blossoming into the multi-award-winning cult hit is really just a no-brainer. The stage show won the Fringe First Award in Edinburgh, the first of many such awards, but the really interesting bit is that the idea of the character came simply from a challenge by a friend, where Waller-Bridge was challenged to create a sketch for a 10-minute section to be presented on a stand-up storytelling night, and the rest, as we say, is history.
Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is all about a certain bold kind of woman that we know and love (and hate, from time to time). She’s the walking and strutting definition of trouble mixed with an equal but complicated dollop of fun, depending on the number of drinks you’ve had and your mood at the time. She has lots and lots of problems, mostly of her own selfish making, but she also has a quality that draws you in and makes you care. We see the pain under the offputting sneer. Her way of dealing with issues is to utilize her sharp wit coupled with a defensive shrug, but it’s her unique ability to find the humor in almost every twist and turn that is her saving grace. “I laugh, then I don’t laugh“, as the underlying truth of pain and fear is layered into every moment of storytelling, and that is something we can all dig into, with a knowing self-referential glance down to our drink. We know her, cause we’ve all been her at least a bit, here and there, from time to time. And if we never were her for even one moment, I don’t know what to think of you, cause where’s the fun in that?
The complications pile up in her storytelling show, mostly revolving around the idea and her connection to sex and avoidance. She breaks up with her boyfriend, Harry, often, yet it never feels like sorrow or sadness that creeps in. She basically behaves throughout like a single highly sexualized woman, and the breakup is only viewed through the lens of something like a sexual holiday from monogamy, a concept that I am sure she doesn’t really think too much about, even when she’s inside that kind of relationship. She pulls us close with her candor, but we also are gifted with a tender insight into her impulses and bad behavior. Fear and death is a factor that surrounds her, and just as she easily makes us laugh, she also has the ability to stop us in our tracks with a quick authentic jab of honesty and pain. Her mother has died, but not recently. It’s the accidental suicide of her best friend, Boo that hangs over the proceedings most devastatingly. And just as we think we have found her pain, another twist is right around the corner waiting to make it even more complicated and smartly true.
Waller-Bridge sits on a high red stool and weaves through the stories of this particular moment in time when the Guinea Pig-themed cafe is close to financial ruin, and the tight-wire she’s been barely balancing on is started to dangerously wobble. Anyone who has watched the television series already knows about 70% of these stories, but the tales are as fascinating to hear again in this slightly different format as they are in the finely crafted television show. The differences are just enough to keep us completely engaged and curious, and even when we know the deal, we also want to revel in the framework looking for all the new pieces to a puzzle we thought we knew so well. There is the gross funny story of Harry getting sick in a toilet, as well as all the quick one-line never heard before jokes that startle and sing perfectly. It’s powerfully intimate while also being filthy in its fun, “but he buys me a drink, so….” The skill of the show is in Waller-Bridge’s telling. She times each line to perfection, granting us access to her inner messy self, switching from one mood and moment to another with a grimace or a wink. It’s tender while also being sharp and hurtful to some, but the more we listen the more we forgive and engage. There’s always the feeling that she’s fending off reproach with a punchline as she readily admits within. She attempts, on advice from her sister, “to stop talking to people like I’m doing a stand-up routine” but do we, as her audience, really want that?
Smoothly and directly self-conscious, this highly self-aware take on a modern-day sexualized woman flies fast and furious outward, trapping us quite happily in the speed of her expert writing and the pace of the side glances that envelopes her sense of self. The rapid-fire delivery of this commentary is matched within this carefully structured piece by Hooly Pigott’s simple design, Elliot Grigg’s spot-on lighting, and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s well-constructed sound design. The angular and defensive exterior is matched by the swift dive into her complicated heart, with the sound of orgasmic moans from porn and guinea pig squeals perfectly piped in for added impact. Even after watching both sessions twice through and this stage show, I wanted more, even with the repetition of some of the bits. That only enhanced the experience, giving me an invitation to dig in a bit deeper with each viewing. “Women are born with pain built-in” according to Belinda (Kristin Scott Thomas’s beautiful turn in Season 2), and Waller-Bridge lets us look directly into that pain, and embrace it on a cold self-isolating night, by watching either the stage show, or either season on Amazon Prime.
As the free-spirited and sexually active, angry and confused young woman strutting down the streets of London, Waller-Bridge delivers with each rendition of Fleabag. The fourth wall breaks constantly inside the television series, making us see the one-person show origin underneath the fine television production, but it also giving us the intimate feeling of being invited into her thought process, warts and all, that only we are privy to. That is until another soul in Season two surprises us with his innate ability to overhear and question the reason for her direct talk. The television show premiered in 2016 and concluded its second and final season in 2019. It received widespread acclaim from critics, particularly for its writing, acting, and the sharp directness of the title character. Waller-Bridge won the British Academy Television Award for Best Female Comedy Performance for the first season. The second received 11 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and won six, with Waller-Bridge earning Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress, and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series; additional acting nominations were received by Clifford, Colman, and guest stars Fiona Shaw and Kristin Scott Thomas. The series received the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series and Best Actress for Waller-Bridge, and a nomination for Scott. And if that isn’t enough to make you want to tune in to every possible rendition of Fleabagthat is available to us, I don’t know what will. Do yourself a favor, don’t “bank it for later“, but dive into the world of Waller-Bridge and her deviously dirty and fun Fleabag. “This is the best bit” yet.
From Soho Theatre Direct’s Website: For every rental of Fleabag, you’re contributing to charities dedicated to supporting those affected by COVID-19 pandemic.
- 35% will be sent to the National Emergency Trust supporting the most vulnerable in society.
- 35% will be sent to NHS Charities Together supporting NHS staff and volunteers caring for COVID-19 patients.
- 15% will be sent to Acting For Others who distribute to people struggling across the theatre sector.
- 15% will be kept for the Fleabag Support Fund.
On Soho Theatre On Demand, you’ll find five purchase options for Fleabag, each with a different price.
Please consider paying as much as you can, with the knowledge that our goal is to raise as much money as possible for these deserving organizations.