The Unlikely Journey of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag
After multiple runs in London and two seasons of TV, Waller-Bridge brings her outspoken character to New York City.
It's a young artist's dream: You write and star in a solo show, the response is strong, producers go to see it and decide to finance its future. It rarely works out with such ease, but it did for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Fleabag, Waller-Bridge's blisteringly dark comedy about the title character, a sexually voracious, emotionally unfiltered young woman navigating modern life in London, started out as a 10-minute short play that she wrote for a friend's "storytelling night." A longer version became the hit of the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where BBC executives saw it and commissioned a six-part television series.
Along the way, Waller-Bridge performed the stage show multiple times, including two engagements at London's Soho Theatre; expanded the work for two seasons of TV; earned an Emmy nomination for writing her other massively successful series, Killing Eve; and made a promise to herself that one day, she'd bring the stage version of Fleabag to New York.
As the second season of TV's Fleabag gets ready for its BBC premiere on March 4 (in the States, it debuts on Amazon May 17), Waller-Bridge is keeping that promise, performing the original Fleabag at the Soho Playhouse through April 14. While the life of her character has been expanded beyond her wildest imagination, Waller-Bridge is most excited to get back to Fleabag in her purest form, just sitting on a stool, talking directly to an audience, "and saying the most outrageous things."
It's been about four years since you last performed Fleabag onstage, but in the interim, you've furthered the story on TV. What kinds of emotions are you experiencing right now?
It's really exciting to come back to where it started and to reconnect with the original character again. But it's also scary. Because I've had to develop the character more and more for TV, I was worried that it might feel like she's grown beyond the earlier play. But rehearsing it here, it feels like getting right back to the core again. It's been a cathartic experience. I feel like I know the character even more now, and to bring her back feels even fuller.
For those who only know the material from BBC or Amazon, how is the stage Fleabag different than the series?
The TV show, which spans a few weeks, is a stretched version of the intensity of what happens to her over three days in the play. There are one or two characters in the play who never made it to the TV show and who I love playing so much. The fact that they are in it really justifies, for me, bringing it back. There are lots of surprises, a lot of twists and turns in the story, that the BBC didn't let me put in because they thought it was too violent. [laughs]
Fleabag is a very personal story for you. Do you look at it as autobiographical to any degree?
It's a splurging expression of how I was feeling at the time I wrote it. The wickedness of her sense of humor is something that my female friends and I always divulge very privately to each other. I felt like I hadn't really had the opportunity to express that kind of surprising, edgy humor that only comes out in the shadows onstage.
It's not autobiographical, so I had to construct a story to say all the things I wanted to say, but all the rage I was feeling — feeling like the value of a woman was contained in how she looked — was something that I really felt at that time in my 20s. All marketing and media is designed to make you feel like you're not good enough unless you're sexy, and I think that is at the core of Fleabag's psyche. She really believes that.
It's rare to see a female character that speaks as openly as Fleabag does onstage in New York.
I'm really hoping you get behind her. I'm a bit nervous! There's nothing sanitized about this show, and the fact that I'm sitting there in a very small theater, looking into the eyeballs of these audience members, and saying the most outrageous things, is so personal. I hope the New York audiences are as sympathetic to her pain as London audiences were.
Can you give us a sneak peek at Fleabag Season 2?
Yes. There is a tour-de-force performance by Andrew Scott as a priest. The working title for Fleabag two for a while was Fleabag vs. God. There's a kind of showdown between her and the big guy.