A group of women in their twenties in blazers, brogues and summer dresses are in the mass of people taking up the whole street outside the Wyndham's Theatre, in London's West End. They're evidently middle class but this will not help them leapfrog over others to the ultimate prize they're all after: entry to the final returning run of the Fleabag stage show starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “We all tried to get tickets,” Sarah, 24, from London told me. “300 to 400 pounds was just too much to try to get the resales, so we’re trying to find resale tickets now.” Hayley, 28, agrees, between sipping sparkling water and watching out for passing busses: “It’s ridiculous, I’ve been a fan since the first series on TV and you can’t even join in at this point because it’s become so huge, and rightly so.” By the time I’ve gone inside the theatre, they’re still exasperated and ticketless but will wait regardless.
It'’s hard to believe now that Fleabag was something of a slow burner; when I wrote about series one in August 2016 I remember just happening to watch the first episode. And even once it’d finished airing, I wondered faintly when people were going to fully catch on. Even more odd to believe that people were being as loathsome as to call Phoebe Waller-Bridge the British Amy Schumer or British Lena Dunham (shorthand for millennial comedic creator who talks loosely about gender and sex). Now Taylor Swift has tweeted about being a fan, "in shambles" knowing she's due to appear on the same SNL episode hosted by Waller-Bridge in October. Now Waller-Bridge has 'broken' America, post-Killing Eve, and been drafted in to improve a James Bond script. Now she's writing and directing her own film. But first, this final victory lap.
As Nicole, a 26-year-old Scot living in London remembers, “you were left after season two wanting to strip it back from what it was before the TV show – to get to the core of something.” To get to the core of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creation, and to PWB herself. Tonight is clearly all about the cult of PWB, the aspirational auteur and Fleabag the so-called “relatable” mess – and in audiences of people who can afford a ticket for this run, the two are ever-more conflated.
The play itself, as you likely already know by now, is built around Waller-Bridge on one stage on one seat. The story is similar to that of the first season at a 65-minute runtime. Fleabag’s best friend Boo is dead, accidentally killing herself after Fleabag slept with her boyfriend. Subsequently Fleabag uses sex as a crutch and a source of pleasure and a specific type of torture, while family relationships are extremely difficult. The conversations had about the show around class and Waller-Bridge herself basically have no place in the original stage show – in summation, those conversations revolved around PWB as upper middle-class, the show reflecting that and a sprinkling of frustration at the general privilege in creative industries and how easily it is to posit someone as posh as Fleabag as a 'relatable woman.' In this stage original, Fleabag's dad appears on the doorstep, one that could be of any house, and her sister takes what feels like a smaller role. All you see is Fleabag, not those in relation to her, and so it becomes more about her psychology than her class signifiers.
If, like most people presumably will, you watch the play after the show, the takeaway is that it provides context to her difficult and complex relationship to sex. The monologuing about sex and porn, her reliance on them, becomes overwhelming by the end, pointedly so. This Fleabag can’t function without it, and more explicitly for her it represents a yawning hole into which she throws the pain of losing her mum and best friend. While most of us seek validation from sex and attraction (among other things, of course), Fleabag's near-compulsion appears both tragic and unhealthy, but all the more psychologically rich.
The entire play is period hand-prints on walls from threesomes, porn categories spelled out, big dicks, wanking until she’s sore between mean fat jokes: Fleabag’s overall more of an addict, more rude, more mean here. The audience bellows out raucous laughs – I wonder whether theatre goers who spent nearly £200 on an original ticket would enjoy the filth and relatability if it weren’t Phoebe Waller-Bridge – and occasionally in the wrong places. It absolutely does feel like everyone is here for Waller-Bridge, and these shows are further proof of why.
Outside the theatre after the play, when asking millennial-age women about the cult of Fleabag/Waller-Bridge, "relatable" kept coming up, like a mantra. Cassie, 29, from Worcestershire said flushed from the thrill of the show, “She’s honest and raw but still intelligent and articulate and cares a lot about things still has feelings.” Naomi, a 23-year-old drama teacher from Tooting adds, “It’s not like the drunk woman slumped in the street going ‘wooo, I’ll just fuck whoever I want’, it’s not that 'wrong' messy woman character. She doesn’t degrade herself which is done so frequently with female comedians in general but also those kinds of characters on TV.”
There is so much to be said for the way that Waller-Bridge has, for so many women, perfected the messy woman trope, by making it highly intelligent and psychological and human. It’s not the bratty I Want humour of Schumer or the specific unlikeability of the Girls characters, but to lump it with those was wrong in the first place. She's a creator of deep human characters who can't let go of things, and now she has a cult of humans who clearly can't let go of her or Fleabag.