Surprisingly for a play that’s performed by one woman – actor Maddie Rice at the Millennium Centre – Fleabag features a cast of damaged, unfulfilled characters, struggling to find their place in contemporary London life. Central to this faintly grotesque world is Fleabag herself (like Paul McGann’s character in the film Withnail and I, her name is never actually revealed), a thoroughly disinhibited, messed-up and sex-obsessed owner of a guinea pig-themed café she opened with her friend who, we discover, had died recently.
Sounds bleak? Well, yes, it is, but bizarrely funny too. Performed under studio lights, the mostly seated Maddie Rice brings to life not just the hapless lead character but, through the unfolding monologue, the other, damaged people in her life. The successful, wealthy sister pondering a dream job in Finland and her creepy husband; her world-weary father, clearly worn down by Fleabag’s unstable life and lifestyle; the long-suffering on-off boyfriend for whom Fleabag’s insatiable urges prompt the occasional separation – they’re all vividly depicted in this hour-long show. They’re believable, rounded characters, made real by both the excellence of Maddie Rice’s performance and the writing of author and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who debuted her creation at the Edinburgh Festival, before it was picked up and transformed into a BBC Three series in 2016, to widespread and deserved critical acclaim.
I went to see Fleabag with my 17-year-old daughter Evie who hadn’t been overly keen to watch it, but found it both funny and enjoyable, but recognised the pathos that made this chaotic character a sympathetic figure too. Watching with Evie, as Fleabag described in unflinching detail her latest sexual adventure, I squirmed awkwardly in my seat on a few occasions. It’s also not a performance you’re going to enjoy if you have an issue with bad language – there are no words that are off-limits in Fleabag’s world, it seems, which isn’t a problem for me, but did at times make it vaguely uncomfortable viewing with my teenage daughter.
As Evie did, I really enjoyed Fleabag too, but think I would have enjoyed it more had I never seen the TV series where the characters become more fully developed and the scenes Maddie Rice describes expanded. But that’s not to be critical of this one-woman show – it was a great performance of an unlikely character for our time.