Being at ‘Fleabag’ in the West End I am undoubtedly lucky, the demand for tickets makes this a hotly anticipated cultural event, at a premium price. The mood in the room is sizzling anticipation, laced with alcohol.
The play itself is quick-witted and sharp-tongued. The writing has an edge to it that the BBC series seems to have softened around the edges a little as it fleshed out. The BBC likely steered this, as there are some gasp-out-loud much darker moments here that a TV audience might have been less likely to tolerate.
“Fleabag at her most essential and cut-throat”
In essence, it’s Season 1 condensed into an hour with some extra bits, Fleabag at her most essential and cut-throat. Issues around body image are searingly clearer, Fleabag’s fixation on porn and especially the women in it is threaded through the monologue rather than dismissed in a few early gags as in the TV series.
Having only Phoebe before us, allows her to show off her exemplary performance skills. The way she scrunches her face to create small-mouthed rodent man or exaggerates her physical gait as she snaps her favourite body parts is just outrageously funny. She demonstrates it is not just her her caustic humour, but her physical comedy that can have us in stitches.
Phoebe slices and dices with the mood in the room, leading us down emotional paths only to take sharp and unexpected turns. She is fully in control of the laughs, the gasps, the intakes of breath. She holds not just the stage but the room.
Then there is the way she controls the narrative as she snaps in and out of her own story, you can see quite clearly the need to develop the ‘aside’ in the TV show as the performance is a constant conversation. If she we were to stop speaking to is, it would lose something vital.
“Theatre magic makes even this large West End space feel strangely intimate”
She may be in the room but was it ever going to feel as arresting as being looked directly in the eyes from a screen? You can no longer convince yourself she is just speaking directly to you with hundreds of pairs of eyes at every level, but from the Grand Circle I can feel when her large brown eyes are on us and it is still worthy of a shiver. Theatre magic makes even this large West End space feel strangely intimate.
The only thing that took me out of her performance was unfortunately, the audience. With (most likely) drunk people laughing in inappropriate places, and the auditorium a sea of selfies, I just found the mood and the imposing space itself took something away from the experience. I found myself trying to imagine I was in Edinburgh discovering Fleabag for the first time in a little black box a metre or so from those intense brown eyes. There is no doubt she can hold the space and I’m sure the writing rings just as true, but the early adopters at the Fringe in 2013 were the really lucky ones.