NATIONAL THEATER LIVE: FLEABAG – Review by Sarah Knight Adamson

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) has currently gained the attention of television viewers for her critically acclaimed BBC comedy series. Now in its third season, it has garnered her the Best Actress in a Comedy Emmy Award along with eleven nominations for the series and an additional three wins.

Now, film enthusiasts will be able to see her work first-hand in her one-woman monologue through the sixty-five-minute event titled, National Theater Live: Fleabag, playing in theaters in London, and beginning this Saturday in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with more theaters to be announced. After viewing the film at the Soho Curzon theater in London, my splendid time included laughing, blushing, and at times, cringing.

The taped production is of a prior live performance in London, that showcases her comedic timing and her skill in dramatic interpretation. Her live shows have a limited run in the West End and sell out almost immediately. Playing to a packed audience, she takes the empty stage, sits on a stool, and begins. Sound effects are added which do enhance the performance although Waller-Bridge doesn’t need any ‘help’ she’s very clear and straightforward in her delivery and her intentions. With loads to say on the subject of sex, being female, being an unsure feminist, men, dating, boyfriends, booty calls, fears, porn, sexting, friendship, family, and of course, guinea pigs. Be prepared for an emotional, unconventional roller-coaster, handled with striking precision.

The intimate stage setting with no help from the cast literally shines a spotlight on her performance. She is absolutely mesmerizing—you can’t take your eyes off of her due to her outstanding non-verbal talents—you don’t want to miss a wicked smirk, a roll-of-the-eyes, or her hilarious small-mouth man interpretation, and that’s just the beginning.

From the get-go, you are hooked. What everyday situation is she going to start on next—only to shock us with one-liners that we can’t help but smile or laugh-out-loud. Her mission pure and simple is to open our eyes to situations, ponder reactions, ask questions, explore female issues, and to turn the gender tables. The direct honesty of Fleabag’s viewpoint as a young woman who sees herself through the sexual scrutiny of men is unsettling but crystalizes as sorely truthful.

Will you be lost if you haven’t seen the TV series? No, not at all, I for one haven’t seen one episode, although after viewing the film, I’ll be binge-watching shortly. Although in reading about the TV series, she speaks of many of the same characters in the live show, Boo, (Jenny Rainsford), the friend who loves guinea pigs and who she says resembles one in shape. Her family, the mom that has died, her beautiful corporate sister, (Sian Clifford), her dad (Bill Paterson), who begins living with their godmother (Olivia Coleman), and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, (Hugh Skinner). The storyline of the series is somewhat filled in as we learn of a guinea pigged themed café, its patrons, financial troubles and her lackadaisical attitude, which is fueled by boredom with the business.

In referring to a café patron whom she names Cockney Joe, she raves that everyone loves him, and follows up with, “Even the f…ing furniture loves Joe!”

My overall reaction is compared to watching a star being born; she’s that good. The only adverse reaction I had was the overly dramatic scene that involved a cruel treatment of the cafe guinea pig. The storyline didn’t feel right, was over-the-top and out of sync with the other situations presented. True, her dramatic talents sharpened our shock and awe, but at what price?

The Bottom-line: Phoebe Waller-Bridge has now shown the film industry her talents, of which we are the admiring recipients’, yes, a star is born.

Director: Vicky Jones

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Sarah Knight Adamson

Chicago-based Sarah Knight Adamson is the film critic for the Internationally syndicated radio show Hollywood 360, broadcast on over 90 stations. She has served on film panels for the Chicago Public Library, been a juror at film festivals, and writes about film for Naperville Magazine. She is founder and publisher of Sarah’s Backstage Pass website, where her written work appears.