Fleabag Fever; Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Phenomenal Hit Has Gone Back to Its Stage Roots with a Sold-Out Run in the West End Startingnext Week. Susannah Butter Tells the Story of the Show, Its Legacy -- and Finds Where Fans Can Get Their Next Fix

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 15, 2019 | Go to article overview

Fleabag Fever; Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Phenomenal Hit Has Gone Back to Its Stage Roots with a Sold-Out Run in the West End Startingnext Week. Susannah Butter Tells the Story of the Show, Its Legacy -- and Finds Where Fans Can Get Their Next Fix


Byline: Susannah Butter

FRANCESCA Moody was one of the first people to read Fleabag and it made her laugh out loud. The producer, who put on the play when it debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, says: "It's always a good sign when something is side-splittingly funny on first read. Fleabag started life as a short comedy-storytelling piece and I could completely see how Phoebe Waller-Bridge would bring it to life."

Since then, it has been adapted for two TV series, the finale of which has been viewed by nearly three million people on BBC One and more in America, caused a spike in sales of black jump-suits and gins in tins and made us look at priests in a new light. It's started debates about class, family and sex, and inspired a new wave of drama, while its co-creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge has transcended her Fleabag image, winning awards for writing the first series of Killing Eve, acting in Star Wars and being called in as a scriptwriter for the new James Bond film. If that's not enough, she has an HBO series on the way and another film in the works. But before that, she's taking Fleabag back where it began -- the stage. The show begins at Wyndham's Theatre on Tuesday and will be a swansong -- Waller-Bridge says she doesn't want to write a third series. Tickets sold out in an hour after the show was announced on the Twitter feed of Dry Write, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag director and co-creator Vicky Jones's production company, with just the message "London" and a winky-face emoji. Coy. Now there are tickets on resale websites for PS775. Fleabag is hot property: there was an eight-way auction for the rights to publish the annotated script and the deal is said to be worth PS500,000. The book will be out on November 5 in the UK and the US. Here's the story of Fleabag, from pencil haircuts to all-consuming infatuation.

The making of Fleabag Waller-Bridge was 26 when she wrote Fleabag. She'd studied at Rada, where she met Sian Clifford, who plays her sister Claire. Clifford says drama school was hard work for both of them and Waller-Bridge thought of herself as more of an actor than a writer back then. It was after graduation that she started writing and her property guardian comedy Crashing was a success on Channel 4. She also had roles in Broadchurch and The Iron Lady, where she became overexcited around the film's star Meryl Streep and made a failed joke about apple crumble. With Fleabag, she and her friend Vicky Jones wanted to articulate what felt unspeakable. Waller-Bridge says: "My brother's face turned white when he saw the early script. He said I'd freak out a lot of men because everything feels true, like her saying she'd rather wank than have sex."

The show has evolved, first from stage to TV and then from an experimental BBC Three series to a tight BBC One headline act that feels like a work of art. It's attracted stars from Olivia Colman to Andrew Scott, Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw, who have all spoken warmly of Fleabag..

"The essence of that short piece is still in Fleabag but the final piece is pretty different," says Moody. "Reading what became Fleabag was all about trusting my gut instincts on something I knew would be good." Some early viewers were judgmental, deliberately mishearing its name -- "Ratbag? Ballbag? No, I'm not watching that scatty woman" -- but it was their loss.

What marks Fleabag out is the way it balances humour, daring lines and sadness. This tension between those elements was in it from the start.

Moody explains: "During our previews at Soho Theatre and then at Latitude, people were properly laughing. We all thought it was funny but it was a huge relief to know that other people felt the same way. In and amongst those first few shows, though, I'll always remember one friend who turned to me and said he found it desperately sad. That was the moment that I knew we had something brilliant and special.

"On stage it's pure storytelling, just Phoebe and this incredible rollercoaster ride through Fleabag's life over two days. …

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