Thirty-three-year-old London native Phoebe Waller-Bridge has rocketed to cult stardom in a short period of time; since 2016, she has created, written, and starred in two British television series, Crashing and Fleabag, created and wrote the Emmy-nominated BBC America crime drama Killing Eve, and played Lando Calrissian’s (Donald Glover) droid L3-37 in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Her breakthrough came with the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe debut of her solo show, Fleabag (later developed into the television series), which earned her an Olivier nomination. Waller-Bridge has now brought the sexy, cringy comedy to SoHo Playhouse, where the sold-out coproduction with Annapurna Theatre continues through April 14. Waller-Bridge is the unnamed title character, a strong, defiant woman who doesn’t hide her sexual desires and says what’s on her mind, no matter how politically incorrect or unfeminist it may be. She owns a small guinea-pig-themed café that she started with her best friend, Boo, who has recently died in a bizarre, tragic accident. She flubs a job interview when she starts to take off her sweater, forgetting that she does not have a top on underneath, leading the male interviewer, who is heard in prerecorded voiceover, to demand that she leave immediately. But Waller-Bridge adds a subtle touch that underscores the situation brilliantly: The man says almost as an afterthought, “I’m sorry. That won’t get you very far here anymore.” It’s one of many clever counterbalances that portray the character’s tendency to pursue cringeworthy situations worthy of Lena Dunham and Larry David, all in the name of uncovering truths about daily life.
She also has run-ins with her maybe-boyfriend, Harry; Joe, the “cockney geezer” who comes into the café every morning at eleven; Tube Rodent, a man with a tiny mouth who flirts with her on the train; her father, who is not exactly thrilled when she arrives drunk at his doorstep; and her fashionable married sister, Claire, who meets her at a lecture entitled “Women Speak.” When the speaker says, “Please raise your hands if you would trade five years of your life for the so-called ‘perfect body,’” the sisters are the only ones in the auditorium who throw their hands in the air. “Four hundred women stare at the two of us horrified. We are bad feminists,” Waller-Bridge says. But are they? She is playing a brave woman who is not ashamed of the choices she makes — whether it’s masturbating to Barack Obama while in bed with a lover or wondering about the size of her naughty bits — and even when she knows she’s gone too far, she understands clearly why she’s done it, offering poignant perspective even as she can’t hold back. When her sister tells her “to stop talking to people like I’m doing a stand-up routine,” adding that “some things just aren’t fucking funny,” she tells the audience, “I laugh. And then I don’t laugh.” That exchange gets to the heart of Waller-Bridge’s humor and her unique storytelling ability.
However, Fleabag the play doesn’t work nearly as well as Fleabag the television series. Perhaps it’s partly because many of the episodes described in the play will already be familiar, and feel a bit stale, to fans at the SoHo Playhouse. Director Vicky Jones, the cofounder and co-artistic director of DryWrite with Waller-Bridge and who has worked with her on Fleabag and Killing Eve, keeps it all fairly simple; Waller-Bridge, wearing a red top and thick red lipstick, spends most of the sixty-five minutes sitting on a tall chair with red cushions, on a rectangular red rug. BAFTA winner Waller-Bridge performs the voices of some of the other characters, while a speaker to her right broadcasts the rest, along with various random sound effects, the inconsistency of which is off-putting. (Waller-Bridge’s sister, composer, artist, and musician Isobel Waller-Bridge, did the sound design; the bare set is by Holly Pigott and lighting by Elliot Griggs.) It’s all like a seriocomic confessional, except Waller-Bridge isn’t asking for the audience’s forgiveness, its sympathy, or its approval; she is merely detailing the life of a confident woman trying to maintain control in a complex, judgmental world, dealing with joys and tragedies, sex and love, glamor and ugliness. And that can be a beautiful thing, even when it’s far from perfect.