It’s not quite true to say that it was what broke her career in the fashion to which it’s become accustomed, but when Phoebe Waller-Bridge won across-the-board acclaim and a Fringe First award for her one-woman play Fleabag in Edinburgh in 2013, the wheels were set firmly in motion. Three years later she adapted and extended the hour-long monologue into a low-key three-hour ensemble television comedy for BBC Three; later sold to Amazon Video, Fleabag became a cult hit in the United States, and Waller-Bridge is now the stuff of American chatshows and a part in the new Han Solo film.
The stage version of Fleabag making a return to the Edinburgh Festival for a short revival run might well be considered a return to the scene of former triumph, then, although things have changed this time. For a start, the venue has expanded hugely, and the one-woman monologue is performed here before a crowd of hundreds in the massive, cow-shaped marquee on George Square. Yet it’s still perfectly-composed enough to strike a hush into the audience, even though it’s not Waller-Bridge performing it this time.
Although the character of Fleabag has become synonymous with her creator to a television audience, the play – perfectly structured and self-contained – is entirely transportable; Maddie Rice has been playing the lead part for some time now, and she perfectly embodies the unusual combination of eloquent sophistication and hapless self-loathing Waller-Bridge devised for the character. She sits on a stool on a square of carpet in centrestage, lit clearly from above and below, and only occasionally sets a single foot off the chair.
Yet the words and Rice’s delivery breathe life into this dark family saga, which is a sharp diversion here from the work made for television; for which SPOILERS may follow here. All present for the first 45 minutes are the jovial discussion of a best friend who died in a tragic semi-accident in a bicycle lane, the fraught sister with an overly attentive teenage stepson and a sexually inappropriate husband, and the frank and drink-spittingly hilarious discussion of threesomes, anal sex and bodily functions.
At the end, however, the reveal which television viewers will be familiar with locks us all in a car and drives off a cliff, mutating into a knuckle-whitening examination of a smart young woman chastened by the culture into believing that youth and beauty are all any man cares about in her, and that addictivley screwing everyone she meets is the only way to claim some worth before life chews her up and spits her out. It’s an angry and focused play, and an altogether different experience from viewing on television.