For a television show that has achieved cult status and is famed for its audience asides, revisiting its stage roots as a one-woman monologue was always going to feel a bit strange – even if delivered via a cinema screen.
While we’re used to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag talking straight to us, it’s normally through a comic aside that breaks the action. In this revived run of the 2013 stage show broadcast to cinemas by NT Live from London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, everything is told to us in her words. To use the jargon, there is no ‘fourth wall’.
We have to cope too with the physical embodiments of the characters we already know mentally popping up in the course of the theatre show. It’s hard not to see Hugh Dennis in your mind’s eye when the bank interview begins or imagine Sian Clifford delivering sister Claire’s lines, and it feels slightly jarring for Claire’s husband to be not American as on the telly, but Scottish. (He is consistently a lascivious drunk.)
What is unchanging and vital though is the focus on Waller-Bridge, and her astounding talent as both a writer and actor. Her storytelling ability is captivating to watch, and in this pared-back environment all eyes are constantly on her – just her, in a baggy jumper, perched on a chair with a black backdrop and a few hanging lights.
You can feel her mastery of the audience as she judges just the right pause before delivering a line, her look passing from the floor to meet yours, darting back again – conspiratorial, engaged, apparently honest (though frankness and honesty are shown to be very different things, as the story unfolds.) Her talent for accents and characterisation, as she portrays secondary characters, comes to the fore.
The format allows for gags that wouldn’t have worked in the TV show, such as a delectable series of mimes around taking explicit selfies. The rawness and, even via cinema broadcast, intimacy makes the emotional turns of the plot and the frequent sexual references all the more powerful. Those familiar with the show will inevitably find themselves waiting for particular lines, but the expectation doesn’t dull the delivery.
The stage show is just as much a modern masterpiece as the television version, and transfers winningly to the big screen.
Fleabag was broadcast live on September 12, 2019. Venues showing the recorded performance at later dates include:
- Bungay: Fisher Theatre
- Bury St Edmunds: Abbeygate Cinema
- Dereham: Orion Cinema
- Fakenham: Central Cinema
- Ipswich: Cineworld, Empire, Film Theatre
- Lowestoft: Marina Theatre
- Norwich: Cinema City, Vue Cinema, Odeon Cinema
- Wells: Maltings
For full details of all screening venues, dates, and times visit the National Theatre Live website.