There she is alone on a bare stage in a tiny theater: a willowy Brit telling cheeky, deeply personal stories about vagina selfies, guinea pig cafés, and terrible job interviews.
Six years ago, that stage was set at Edinburgh’s sprawlingly democratic Fringe Festival, where it won over audiences and took home a Scotsman Fringe First award. Starting this week through April 14, a virtually identical run begins Off Broadway at New York’s Soho Playhouse, a 178-seat jewel box in downtown Manhattan.
Now, though, there are Hollywood luminaries sprinkled throughout the preview audience (Adam Driver, Zachary Quinto), major names in the Playbill (Broadway giant Daryl Roth and indie film magnate Megan Ellison are among the listed producers) and its sole writer and performer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is an international name in her own right: an actress with everything from a Fleabag television series to a Star Wars franchise on her resumé — not to mention major accolades for penning and running the debut season of the breakout female-assassin drama Killing Eve.
Which is to say that in the interim Waller-Bridge has become a beloved and far better known commodity, and so has her story. And that can sometimes make seeing this iteration of Fleabag feel a little bit like staring through the wrong end of the telescope — if only because its main plot points were so cleverly, trenchantly expanded on the series (which returns to the BBC next month and Amazon Prime stateside May 17, with special guest spots from the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw).
When Waller-Bridge introduces her tightly wound older sister or her passive-aggressive godmother-turned-stepmother onstage, it’s hard not to picture the great actresses who play them onscreen: Sian Clifford and freshly-minted Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman, respectively. Or, when she describes a silent flirtation with another commuter (or as she memorably calls it, “eye-f—ing on the Tube”), not to think back to the actual dialogue between her and actor Jamie Demetriou, who took the man’s “tiny rodent mouth” to another level, prosthetically.
But the heart of the show, in any medium, is still Fleabag’s love for the dearly departed Boo — the loopy best friend who flung herself into a busy bike lane in the misguided hopes of getting a cheating boyfriend’s attention, and accidentally ended up dead. Waller-Bridges’ portrayal of her grief, and the slow onion peel of her role in her friend’s silly, terrible death, is still affecting here, even if it feels like the first season’s six episodes had much more time to let that narrative arc breathe.
All of these nitpicks are moot, of course, if you haven’t seen the TV show, though hardly anyone in the room on this particular night seemed new to the material. Still, they laughed and cheered on cue at every gleefully filthy riff on anal sex and bad brothers-in-law and masturbating to Zac Efron, and sat respectfully rapt when she turned a more serious lens on the psychic pain and self-loathing that drives nearly every decision her character makes.
If this Fleabag sometimes feels a little like it’s all happening in air quotes, it’s still a brisk (only 65 minutes!), clever, and indisputably engaging evening of theater, performed at a level of intimacy that most Phoebe Waller-Bridge fans — now legion — can only dream of in 2019. B+