NT Live: Fleabag

Review: NT Live: Fleabag

13 Apr 20

An absolute delight in its simplicity

Theatre has often been mislabelled as a pretentious retelling of English plays; full of outdated language with the same outdated stories. It has long tarred the theatrical stage with the reputation of being old and unoriginal, offering nothing new to the scene. That, of course, is not the case, it merely lacks the awareness when it comes to bringing in a fresh audience. In comes National Theatre Live, bringing theatre to the more accessible silver screen of the cinema.

Later adapted into two seasons of BBC television, National Theatre Live brings the original one-woman theatrical show that started it all. The creative child of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, this is an eye-opening exercise in minimalism and powerful storytelling.

As this is a stage play, there is little to comment on with relation to cinematography, with the majority of the visual landscape involving a woman sitting atop a chair in the centre of the stage. Thanks to static camera angles, any sense of movement is brought on through the narrative journey that Waller-Bridge brings to the audience, helped by some subtle lighting changes to highlight location or changes in time.

It doesn’t take long to realise how fluent Waller-Bridge is with the character which she is portraying. With the exception of a few excerpts of audio thrown in from off-stage from time-to-time, all information comes from Waller-Bridge. Switching between dialogue styles, Waller-Bridge conveys dialogue, narration, backstory, thoughts and opinions, exposition and embellishments, all without hesitation. All without creating any confusion as to what is going on. There is confidence and certainty in the performance that fills the viewer with a sense of authenticity.

This is not the story a young lover in a faraway land, kept from the object of her fantasies by a torn family. This is the story of a woman in modern-day London. A woman that wants to get out of the rat race. A woman that enjoys being promiscuous. A woman that enjoys a drink or two (or maybe 12). A woman that has just been through a break-up. Super relatable traits that are put about in a super relatable context. It’s modern, kitschy, earnest, and engagingly honest.

This abrupt and candid story is both cringe-worthy and laugh-out-loud hilarious, frequently jumping between the two with such a lack of filter and consequence that the viewer cannot help but become engrossed in this protagonist whose life is slowly unravelling before us in exquisite detail.

Set up as a long-format comedy stand-up, Waller-Bridge’s ability to command the audience’s attention for a full hour and a half is exemplary. Her sense of timing is immaculate, taking full advantage of silence--sometimes waiting 10-15 seconds to drop a punchline--as well as well-timed omissions and exposition choices. Her knowledge of the protagonist's story is so well-tuned that it doesn’t feel like she is regurgitating a script; it feels like an honest recollection of past events as if every time she tells the story it will be a little different, and the authenticity is empowering.