Fleabag at the Coolidge Corner Theater
September 18, 2019 | By Audrey Wang
Phoebe Waller-Bridge never strays more than a foot away from her simple red chair throughout the whole show. She stays in a red jumper and black slacks, there are barely any lighting cues, and no other actors. It’s simple, and overwhelmingly effective. Her intense energy, expressive eyes, and quick mouth never waver whether it is imitating a guinea pig named Hilary head-banging to indie pop, describing a man called Rodent Face who is only handsome “from the eyes up,” or going through the process of grief that comes with losing her best friend.
Fleabag was first shown in 2013 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it debuted as a one-woman monologue. It then went on to get picked up as a TV show by Amazon, gaining a big fanbase from the two seasons. After that highly successful run, it came back as a play at the Soho Playhouse in London. Now, thanks to the National Live Theatre, it is broadcast in cinemas all over the United States. The play has much of the same content as season one, with minor differences. Some storylines are eliminated while others are expanded to fit the new medium. Waller-Bridge smartly pens a 65-minute monologue on what it means to be a modern woman, a lost heroine wandering through life and wondering if this is really it. A place where people can disappear from her life as quickly as they came.
We open on a scene where Fleabag, the main character, is trying to get a loan for her struggling café. Waller-Bridge flawlessly replies with impeccable timing to a pre-recorded voice of the interviewer. As we enter Fleabag’s world, we learn about her dysfunctional relationships with her family, her best friend’s death, and her guinea pig-themed café that she must keep afloat by herself. Throughout her daily life, she shamelessly lets the audience in on all her inner thoughts, both racy and humorous. We see all of her — the good, the bad, and sometimes even the worst.
Most of the other characters, if they aren’t pre-recorded voices, are played by Waller-Bridge herself. Her hand motions to the sound effects readily, and she shifts from one character to the next as effortlessly as turning her head from one side to the other. The way she shifts her weight and furrows her brows adds to the depth of each character she plays. Her lit-up eyes are enigmatic and alluring, bringing levity and a sense of sincerity to the clever dialogue. Through the camera’s close-ups, you can see her every falter, every hint of a smile, every twitch of a muscle — all which can disappear just as quickly as they show up.
As extraordinary as she is an actor, she is an even more phenomenal writer. Waller-Bridge makes us laugh through our tears. She paints a modern portrait of loneliness while still finding the humor in dark situations. With a single line and a faraway look in her eye, she makes the audience shed tears. They don’t even have the chance to wipe them away before they’re laughing at her next quip, one she says so quickly that they’re not sure if they actually caught it or not. With this careful balance of emotions and heart-wrenching story, Waller-Bridge shows us that this is just how life is and that this is just how emotions are. Emotions are not black and white, and they all bleed into each other, coming together to form a beautiful watercolor. It’s messy — but it’s all we’ve got.