Disclaimer: I came to review Fleabag with no prior knowledge of its contents or its story. Considering the phenomena (and, more importantly, the BBC Series) Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script has morphed into this is no mean feat. I may, in fact, be the only person I know not already utterly enamoured with Waller-Bridge’s funny and frank creation – I suppose this makes me the ideal audience for this revival of the monologue first staged at the Underbelly in 2013. I suspect that the majority of its actual audience, however, are Fleabag acolytes – some of whom left the theatre somewhat bemused by how identical the story of the stage version was to its TV incarnation.
For those not in the know, Fleabag takes us on the flash tour of the mind of a sex-obsessive modern woman with almost nothing left to lose. Having alienated her oafish boyfriend with her YouPorn habit, lost her best friend in a freak accident, and pushed away all chances of intimacy, ‘Fleabag’ speaks to the audience candidly and outrageously of her sexual encounters and secret shames.
There is a significant difference between this production and the screen version, however. For the first time, the monologue is performed not by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but by actress Maddie Rice. One can’t help but feel that some of the power of this shock-confessional speech is lost in the recasting. Inevitably, when a piece like this is written and performed by the same individual, there is an added level of authenticity – when we find ourselves identifying with Fleabag, we feel closer when the lines between creator and character are blurred. Equally, when we are appalled by her callousness, that betrayal of our affection for her feels more raw.
That isn’t to say that Rice isn’t an excellent performer. Often, her comic timing is flawless – in particular, a demonstration of her mother’s difficulties due to her oversized bust is excellent comic acting, as is her impression of her cafe’s sole Guinea Pig. But curiously for a confessional, this never feels like a production taking place between us and her – it feels more like a presentation of something carefully prepared that we watch from behind a glass screen. This perhaps is appropriate given the character’s evasion of intimacy, but makes for a less satisfying experience than it could have been.