The following review is penned by guest contributor Patrick McDonald, freelance writer and the Über Critic.
At the recent Emmy Awards, there was one TV series collecting the statues as if redecorating a trophy room. “Fleabag,” a British import to Amazon Prime, won Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Directing, as well as Outstanding Lead Actress (Comedy Series) and Outstanding Writing for its creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The National Theatre Live recently filmed Waller-Bridge doing the original one-woman show that the series was based on, also called “Fleabag.” The Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is screening this special event throughout the month of October (see below).
The one-woman show is different from the series, in subtle and more tactile ways, but many of the familiar characters from the show have their origins in the piece. Waller-Bridge is a comic force of nature, combining the rubber-faced intuitiveness of Carol Burnett with the snark of Ricky Gervais. The rhythm of the 80-minute show – since it’s told all at once – is not as fulfilling as the series, which had six hours to tell its story, but it’s still compelling enough to experience the roots of the Fleabag character, and in that sense the overall effect is more poignant.
Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) is a befuddled and sharp-tongued social observer who owns a Guinea Pig-themed cafe in London. The cafe is in trouble financially, but her sister Claire has promised to lend a hand. Meanwhile, Fleabag is having some romantic problems, as her live-in boyfriend Harry has moved out, but that doesn’t stop her from seeking one night pleasures elsewhere. Her story is the backlash from this current situation, and her truth-telling finds a path to redemption.
This show was developed for the Edinburgh Festival in 2013, and won the Fringe First Award that year. The TV series was produced from there, and has played to worldwide and award-winning acclaim. And in the middle of it all is Waller-Bridge, performing for the last time—in a deftly directed film by Vicky Jones—the original one-woman show. It takes a while to warm up, but once the layers of situations start to interact, the laughs are as satisfying and abundant as the TV series. Waller-Bridge literally has the character in her DNA, and all the life lessons that Fleabag has to undergo are exquisite in their comic timing and emotional carriage.
The familiar characters from the show—Harry, sister Claire, Dad, Godmother and Boo—are present, and in this all together story either have more exposition (Boo) or less traction (Godmother) than the series. It’s also intriguing to see the skeleton of what is now an almost cultural phenomenon. It works whether you’ve seen the series or not, plus makes for a cool introduction to that universe and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The character of Fleabag is mostly ourselves, if we had her guts to proclaim our sexual proclivities and act upon them, and of course the circumstance and use of those pleasure-bent sides of ourselves to avoid real responsibilities. We have met the Fleabag, and she is us.
“National Theatre Live: Fleabag” will be presented in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 North State Street, on October 12th, 20th, 25th and 27th (for tickets and showtimes, click here). Due to demand, a second run of tickets & showtimes for November screenings will go on sale October 17th.