Review: “National Theatre Live: Fleabag”

By Morgan Roberts

Before “Fleabag” was a television show, it was a one-woman stage play.  Written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and directed by Vicky Jones, the stage play gives us the first moments of Fleabag and her messy life and family.

Filmed by Tony Grech-Smith, the recorded live performance immerses you in Waller-Bridge’s story and characters.  Some characters are merely pre-recorded voices. The feminist lecturer and the bank manager are ominious voices played overhead.  Meanwhile, all the other characters brought to life by various actors in the show are portrayed by Waller-Bridge herself.

The stage narrative includes some of the series’ storylines.  The dead mother, her best friend Boo’s fate, the guinea pig cafe, the uptight sister, the 12-18 month break-ups with Harry, and even the infamous Obama speech.  It was nice to see some of those elements in their original form. I was able to recognize some of the best lines from the program, but there were a few additional zingers and moments that struck me.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in National Theatre Live: Fleabag (2019)

There are a number of added elements.  The most surprising to me was the fate of her guinea pig, Hilary.  Hilary plays a bigger role than in the show. It was also incredible to see Waller-Bridge act out the tiny critter herself.  But, I will warn you, Hilary’s story is very dark. The show in general, while hilarious, was equally dark, much darker than the show itself.  I was struck by the darkness that loomed over the narrative. Season 1 of “Fleabag” felt a bit more darker than season 2, yet the stage play takes that darkness to another level.

“Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius.  Her writing has always been impeccable which is astonishing. Waller-Bridge found her voice long ago and it is truly on point. Her acting is just as phenomenal.”

Some elements of the play were changed or omitted for the show itself.  For instance, in the play, Fleabag’s insufferable brother-in-law Martin is Scottish, but is changed to American for the television show.  Waller-Bridge does an excellent job portraying this horrendous person. There were some stories about her past with ex-boyfriend Harry that really told their story in a bit of a different light.  The godmother is also omitted, which is fine because only Olivia Colman can be Godmother.

Overall, while there are equal parts of foundational material and alternate material, one thing rings true: Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius.  Her writing has always been impeccable which is astonishing. Waller-Bridge found her voice long ago and it is truly on point. Her acting is just as phenomenal.  She takes the tonal shifts, character changes, different scenes in stride. She is captivating from start to finish. You can see her emotion, you can see her wit, and you can see her working in every aspect of this material.  Fleabag, while loosely based on Waller-Bridge herself, is fully an actualized person in all her sex-addicted, chaotic, hilarious glory.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in National Theatre Live: Fleabag (2019)

And if this doesn’t sell you to watch this live performance, then I hope this does.  Waller-Bridge is having this released and having proceeds go to The National Emergencies Trust, NHS Charities Together, and Acting For Others.  Proceeds are also going to the newly launched Fleabag Support Fund which will be distributing grants to freelancers working in the UK theatre industry.  There will also be additional charities in the United States who will be receiving proceeds.

“National Theatre Live: Fleabag” is available via Soho Theatre’s On Demand streaming site for the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Available on Amazon Prime in the United States.


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