Comedy, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Hard to keep laughing

Fringe World review: Fleabag, a DryWrite and Soho Theatre production ·
Blue Room Theatre, 15 February ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

It’s a big ask: one woman, on a stool, in the centre of a small bare stage, holding the audience in the palm of her hand for one hour.

It’s a feat achieved by Maddie Rice, thanks to her incredible stage presence. This is despite elements of Fleabag being more “cringe” than “fringe”.

Fleabag is written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star of the Netflix series Crashing. It was her debut play and, after rave reviews, it was picked up and expanded into a six-part TV series.

While undoubtedly a quirky premise (a sex-obsessed woman on the verge of losing her guinea-pig themed café after the death of her best friend), Fleabag is dark but not cerebral humour. And as the name suggests, the protagonist becomes irritating after a while. She’s a train-wreck, yet we can’t look away.

Rice, who has an impressive list of stage and TV credits, often plays multiple characters in a scene or interacts with recorded audio representing characters such as a job interviewer, her dead friend Boo or ex-boyfriend Harry. I loved the vignettes with her sister, an uptight corporate slave with a sleazy husband and a job offer in Finland.

Much of Fleabag’s material seems to rely on the shock value of breaking the traditional taboo against women talking about sex. (To paraphrase: I masturbate a lot these days. When I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m bored, when I’m depressed…) There’s the material about porn and anal sex and the red hand mark on the wall, from where she had a threesome during her period. There’s a sequence set in a disabled work toilet in which she mimes taking, er, intimate pictures of herself (for the fifth time that day). Other jokes seem to invite a response because – shock – they’re basically rape jokes but told by, you know, a woman!

While I wouldn’t call myself squeamish or prudish, the humour didn’t do it for me and the response from the full house seemed luke-warm. The mood shifted again when the laughs hinged on the misfortunes of Harriet, the guinea pig, complete with bone-crunching sound effects.

Basically, it’s hard to keep laughing with a little bit of vom in your mouth.

‘Fleabag’ plays until February 24.

Photo: Richard Davenport

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