Fleabag was delicious. From the neon-pink-edged set to the blaring Peaches song whose title I’m not allowed to print (but which is still stuck in my head), and the wall-to-wall collage of men in varying degrees of undress on the Barron back wall, I was expecting a similarly bold and brash script. And in many ways, it was.
Yet as much as Fleabag was in-your-face, a sense of bareness pervaded the production. The set of black levels and rostra was simple enough to convey anything from a train-carriage to a disabled loo, with appropriate blocking and artfully manipulated lights and sound. Aesthetically, people sitting further back in the audience would have struggled to see the collage in detail, but even then, the effect still remained: Photoshop, blue-steel smoulders, and a lot of bare skin. However, the brilliance of director Joanna Bowman’s vision is that despite the gloss and neon, you see what is really being laid bare: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script.
So much of the play is ‘Narrator-Fleabag’: blunt, sweary, even angry at times, but intercut with scenes that play out the events she is recounting. As punchy and cool as this is, it is so constant in the first half of the play that it’s almost wearying. But flashbacks and shorter scenes reveal Fleabag’s quirks and foibles, as well as sudden moments of vulnerability, which gradually bleed into the narration as the play goes on. They laid bare our unreliable narrator and provided a more serious emotional aspect to the play, all the more moving because of their unexpectedness. Fleabag is frank and in control of her own agency – sexually and otherwise – but also a downright mess, and good God it’s refreshing.
How often do we encounter well-rounded, nuanced female characters? How often are women allowed to be truly flawed and imperfect in a world which batters us – sometimes literally – into narrow moulds of palatable conformity? We are so used to seeing nuanced male characters, but whenever a woman has sexual agency or portrayed as flawed in a very genuine way, she’s objectified, shamed, or otherwise framed according to a patriarchal gaze. But Fleabag says ‘screw that, we’re human too’, and that is what is so brilliant about it. Fleabag forces you to confront the reality of what some might call the ‘modern woman’, written as women really are. There is a refreshing honesty in how upfront Fleabag is about her sex-life and porn-watching habits; that one ginger guy who she never got over because he looked after her when she was off-her-face-high at a festival and did not even “feel her up”; or how she goes to feminist lectures and tries to be ‘engaged’, but you know, it’s hard sometimes.
In the first part of the play, we only really see surface-level Fleabag – snarky, narcissistic and fast-paced. We seemed to rattle through most of the first half of the show – partly because Helena Jacques-Morton’s initial delivery was just a little too fast to be called chatty – and I felt that more time could have been given for the occasional lengthier pause when moving from one scene to the next. But throughout, Jacques-Morton came across as feeling very much at home on stage. This comfort underpinned her whole performance – useful when you consider that she has to command the audience’s attention for a whole hour on her own in a play that deals with everything from masturbation to suicide. She held the audience’s attention and sold the more superficial elements of Fleabag, making the twists in her tale all the more unexpected and moving. As phrased in the Director’s Note, “Fleabag is a tricky beast of a show, darting from brilliantly funny to emotionally draining in a matter of words”. That Helena Jacques-Morton portrayed this is a testament to her emotional command and overall performance, and she really shone in those more genuine, vulnerable moments in Fleabag’s narrative.
All of these aspects of Fleabag were brought together in an ending which mirrored the beginning: a job interview gone awry. Just when I thought we had levelled out emotionally, the script hit me with one last punch in the feelings. All the snark and quips and cracks in Fleabag’s façade built up to one final, sudden outpouring of tears and shouting and cards-on-the-table honesty. This final boiling-point drove home that behind the apparently sex-obsessed and narcissistic exterior, Fleabag is raw and flawed and stumbling through adulthood in an achingly moving way.
You do not have to be much like Fleabag to relate to and sympathise with her character, or to Jacques-Morton’s performance. Did Fleabag change my life as a woman in the modern age? Is it the new bastion of the ‘feminist agenda’ (whatever that even means)? No. And that does not matter. What matters is that we lack stories where women are allowed to be human. If art sometimes functions as a mirror then there are disproportionately few reflections of what women are really like. Enter Fleabag: a new direction, where women can exist on page and stage in all our brilliantly funny, messy, mistake-making glory.