Film Review: National Theatre Live: Fleabag proves Phoebe Waller-Bridge in raw form is a force to be reckoned with

If you’ve been living under a rock you may have missed all the buzz about Fleabag. The British comedy-drama, written and created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge that follows a young woman known as “Fleabag” navigating life and love in London whilst trying to cope with tragedy. Waller-Bridge stars as the titular character who will often break the fourth wall narrating her inner monologue. With much of its popularity due to its relatable characters and situational comedy. 

The TV series which is based off Waller-Bridge’s 2013 one woman stand up comedy show from Edinburgh Fringe Festival features two seasons and is currently available on Amazon Prime Video in Australia. The series has amassed a number of awards, particularly for its second season, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series at the most recent Primetime Emmy Awards. The success of Fleabag has seen Waller-Bridge return to the West End stage in London to do another run of the original stand up show and courtesy of Sharmill Films and National Theatre Live, Australian audiences can see where it began. 

The narrative follows an unnamed but affectionately dubbed character of Fleabag as she recounts her day to day experiences. Her exploits often include her flirting and bedding a series of various men who are only ever given descriptive nicknames such as “Bus Rodent” or “Arsehole Guy”. She has a strained relationship with her sister Claire and her father and is barely able to run the guinea pig cafe she started with her best friend Boo. We come to learn that Boo recently died and Fleabag is struggling to come to terms with her death. 

The performance directed by Vicky Jones, begins with Waller-Bridge rushing out on stage to take a seat on a singular chair. If you’re familiar with the first season of the TV series you’ll immediately recognise the setting of her being in the bank manager’s office asking for a loan. Waller-Bridge being the only person onscreen commands the viewer’s attention. And the one-woman setting is helped along by occasional additions of dialogue provided by “off screen” co-stars or by sound effects. Though every now and then Waller-Bridge will impersonate a character or throw up an accent, but this is done mockingly or jokingly. But it’s some of those intense moments where she will hold a pause, waiting for the joke or her analysis to land, seeing that in its raw form makes it all the more exciting.

For those who are fans of the tv series, you’ll notice a lot of similarities to the first season plot with word for word replication of particular scenes, but there are also elements that are different. For one, the character of Martin, Claire’s alcoholic husband, in her one woman show is Scottish, but in the tv series is American. The change in ethnicity of this character is inconsequential, other than in her one-woman stand up Waller-Bridge gets to do a convincing Scottish brogue. There’s also a surprising ending that was given to the stand up show that was specifically altered for the tv series at the insistence of the BBC. Seeing the changes and where she has adapted the original stand up show into a screenplay form that works for television only serves to show how impressive Waller-Bridge’s deft touch is.

The National Theatre Live: Fleabag production is a way for fans of the tv series to truly appreciate the show’s origins. Obviously a large majority of the audience won’t have had the good fortune of travelling to see the production in London so the National Theatre Live run is a great way to experience it. Waller-Bridge is acerbic and savage in her self deprecation and criticisms of those around her and even in this one-woman form she is a force to be reckoned with. 

 

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

National Theatre Live: Fleabag releases in limited Australian cinemas from 11 October 2019 through Sharmill Films.

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