“Happy people don’t do things like that”
It is easy to see why Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, written and performed by herself, was such a hit in Edinburgh, winning a Fringe First award for its fearlessly filthy and frank take on female sexual liberation in the 21st century. As it rattles from sharp one-liners to predominantly smutty anecdotes, we see a young woman fully embracing her potent sexuality and apparently loving it, loving it, loving it.
She seizes the world of opportunity that is open to her on a regular basis – maintaining an on-off relationship with her boyfriend whilst indulging in casual hook-ups of all shapes and sizes and variations as and when the mood takes her. And inbetween, she masturbates relentlessly to internet porn, satiating her addiction any way she can. But though she’s happy fulfilling these desires, life around her is beginning to crumble.
Waller-Bridge is an entirely charismatic performer and as she skips lightly between the various characters in Fleabag’s life – the drunk girl on the tube, the Cockney geezer who’s a regular in her cafe, any number of her gormless suitors – she is most entertaining to watch. But the deeper side – the hints of sadness at the loss of her family life, the lingering doubts about the recent death of her best friend – doesn’t resonate with enough emotion to make us care about her as much as we could.
Part of this is doubtless Waller-Bridge’s point that feminism hasn’t been solved by this apparent sexual freedom that has characterised a whole new generation and that many lack the emotional intelligence to deal with the world as a result of retreating into a world of porn. But the embodiment of this in her performance provides a distancing effect – little-to-no eye contact in such an intimate space is quite disarming – and this highlights the frequent brittleness of the writing which rarely feels like fleshed-out tale of a real person. But when it is funny, it is often hilarious and feels right at home in the wider programming of the Soho Theatre.