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The unlikely relatability of one woman and her guinea pig-themed cafe.

In November 2019, when the term “mask” conjured calming connotations of Halloween, I attended a cinema screening of the National Theatre Live's production of Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Waller-Bridge's original critically acclaimed play, Fleabag, debuted at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was eventually adapted into a BBC television series. The Emmy Award-winning programme builds upon the original one-woman show and expands the comedic world of the titular character, referred to only as Fleabag. Waller-Bridge and director Vicky Jones revived the source material in 2019 at the Wyndham Theatre whilst broadcasting it to masses of cinema-goers. Hyperbolic as it may seem, I still recall being in total awe of how a theatrical space had been so deftly replicated in a dull screening room. I also remember finding the ridiculous pre-recorded audience reactions hysterical, perhaps placing too much onus on them for humour. Undoubtedly, however, Waller-Bridge delivers an intrinsically intimate performance, consistently breaking the fourth wall and inviting the audience into Fleabag's life as she grieves through her sexuality. Waller-Bridge's ability to switch between characters and emotional states allows the audience to crisply visualise the chaos of Fleabag's world. The blurred boundaries between spectator and performer are catalysts behind the theatre to cinema transformation. 

The play predominantly revolves around Fleabag and her unsuccessful guinea pig-themed café. This café acts as a venue for many uncomfortable questions. Questions about womanhood as a concept. Discussion of an omnipotent male gaze and its inevitable creation of female failure.  “Another lunchbreak, another abortion,” sings Fleabag as she grapples with the male-perpetuated narrative of female promiscuity through a series of monologues that progressively become more worrying. As her monologues unravel in terms of depravity, so too does her mental state. The end result is a hilarious piece of dramatic comedy. 

"As her monologues unravel in terms of depravity, so too does her mental state..."

My second viewing of the play occurred more recently in 2021 via the off-Broadway theatre of Amazon Prime. This production premiered after a procession of ever-worsening lockdowns and Carole Baskin's stint on Dancing with the Stars. Watching it this time around, I paid no notice to the pre-recorded audience members, nor did I have a cohort of people to laugh along with. The shared community of theatrical and cinematic experience was erased, but Fleabag’s entertainment and shock-value endured. Waller-Bridge's script humbled my humorous take of the play in a way that would not have been possible upon my first viewing. The severe social isolation featured in the play stands in stark comparison to our mutual lived experiences. Much like Fleabag, our minds and bodies continue to be removed from public space. The yearning for touch and connection which Waller-Bridge displays is painfully familiar today. However, with the reopening of cinemas and theatres in Scotland, the communal experience of audience viewing is reignited. Should the play be broadcast in cinemas once more, perhaps a more hopeful, didactic reading may be extracted from the performance.

Fleabag is an unlikable character in the same way we all are, whether in the narratives of others or ourselves. She steals, cheats and lies her way through life, often mistreating others, just as we all do. This self-destructive mindset makes Fleabag grotesquely relatable. The play illustrates our desire for human connection and the inevitability of the human tendency to push those we love the most away. In a post-lockdown landscape, Fleabag stands as a harrowing parable of the need for shared human experience and, most importantly, love. And maybe also sex. After all, despite the frustrations of queueing for clubs or the ruckus of public transport, there lies one core truth at the centre of humanity. A truth which Waller-Bridge perfectly enunciates in Fleabag's penultimate scene: “People are all we've got.”


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