So I went off to a movie theatre to watch a stage play. A filmed stage play shown like a movie because I couldn’t be in the country where the play was on. It’s a surreal, meta experience. The play is the original one-woman stage version of Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is performing it for the last time after debuting it back in 2013.
Fleabag became a hit television series on the BBC in the UK in 2016. When Amazon Prime premiered it in the US and worldwide, it became a cultural touchstone in feminist storytelling. Fleabag has become the emblem for flawed, messy, sexual woman who don’t apologise for their unashamedly bad decisions. She’s a self-confessed “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist!”
And she’s bloody funny about it. Funny and tragic. That’s Fleabag’s lot.
If you’re reading this, I assume you probably already watched the television series. The show is a kind of intimate epic of its heroine’s explosively disastrous emotional life. The original stage play is in many ways more powerful, more intimate and epic than the TV show, and less at the same time.
The Differences Between Play and TV Series
Both the play and first series of the show tell the same story. Fleabag’s life is a shambles. She’s mourning the death of her best friend Boo. The guinea pig café they ran together is going to close unless she can raise five grand. Her mother has died and her grieving father has taken up with her godmother.
She has a strained relationship with her uptight, Type-A personality sister. Her sister is married to a creep who tried to touch Fleabag up while drunk. Fleabag’s only way to connect with people and self-soothe is through sex – and it’s sex that gets her in trouble.
But the play and the television series are vastly different animals. The play is a dense monologue that runs 90 minutes while the first series of the television series expands the story into six episodes. That means that characters imagined and performed by Fleabag are given actual form, played by other actors.
The play is a confessional, so Fleabag – and Waller-Bridge – creates and interprets the characters, their mannerisms and behaviour. They’re filtered through Fleabag’s opinions of them and gives Waller-Bridge a tour-de-force showcase for her acting range.
She can find nuances and subtexts in seemingly throwaway lines and turn them into epic set pieces of physical comedy on stage. When actors depict the same stories on television, it actually feels less powerful if you already saw the play.
This scene is actually much funnier in the play than on-screen.
In the play, the godmother character is only mentioned in two sentences. The TV series created an entire character and storyline for her. Godmother in the show is a sociopathic, manipulative, narcissistic sculptress who doesn’t exist in the play. Olivia Colman’s transcendentally nasty performance is an addition on the television show, along with the new set piece where Fleabag has to serve food at her art opening.
Talking to the Audience Has A Different Meaning
The biggest difference between the play and the television show is the meaning behind Fleabag talking to the audience. In the television series, whenever she breaks the “4th wall” to talk to us, she makes us her accomplices. We become complicit in all the shenanigans that she gets away with.
In the play, her speaking directly to the audience from start to finish is much more of a confessional. It’s a ritual of self-flagellation – she’s telling the audience the terrible, unforgivable things she did – laying herself bare as punishment.
This is how she beats herself up for her friend Boo’s death. It all starts funny and shocking like the edgier standup comedy routine, the better to set up the gut-punch at the end. The writing here is more powerful than the TV version.
And what happens to the guinea pig is even more horrific and sad when you hear her tell it…