Saturday, September 10, 2016

The lost girl

As Stuart Heritage's review for the Guardian suggested, Fleabag was not - "on paper" - a terribly appealing proposition. But it proved to be one of the best sitcoms I've seen for years.

Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag began life as a ten-minute slot at a London storytelling night and developed into a critically acclaimed solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe, later transferring to the Soho Theatre. The titular character, played brilliantly by Waller-Bridge, initially comes across as insecure, sex-obsessed and manipulative but nevertheless essentially a loveable rogue. (Her real name is never revealed, so she's only known by her nickname - and thus her actions seem like evidence of nominative determinism.) Many of the laughs come from her bitter jibes and schemes, as well as from her insatiable carnal appetite and awkward sexual encounters, while there is also plenty of cringe-comedy.

Over the course of the six half-hour episodes, though, Fleabag gradually reveals hidden depths and a tragic backstory, as the narrative arc takes the viewer off into a very dark place. It's a risky strategy, not least because the laughs have all but disappeared by the final episode, but - as, for instance, with the most recent series of Rev - it's one that really pays off. Outwardly spiteful and selfish, Fleabag turns out to be as vulnerable, fragile and damaged as everyone else around her - and as much in need of love and kindness. As Waller-Bridge told the Guardian's Julia Raeside, "She has a heart. It's just broken."

Stylistically, Fleabag's most distinctive feature is the character's extensive use of asides to camera that none of the other characters can hear - all beautifully done by her Rada-trained creator. Raeside compared her to Ferris Bueller, but the frequently barbed, sneering and Machiavellian nature of her comments actually bring to mind Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs' House Of Cards. Given its critical function in the television adaptation, I'm intrigued to know whether the technique was also used in the stage show, or whether it was developed specifically for TV. (The fact that Peep Show's Jesse Armstrong is credited as a consultant perhaps suggests the latter.)

The title of the programme naturally focuses attention on Fleabag herself, and it is very much her story - but that shouldn't obscure the fact that she's surrounded by an extraordinarily good cast. Olivia Coleman is exceptional as a cruel smiling stepmother (is there anything she doesn't shine in?) and anyone surprised by Hugh Dennis' quietly sublime performance as a world-weary bank manager is thinking only of his appearances on epic banter panel show Mock The Week rather than his long-standing acting role in Andy Hamilton's Outnumbered.

It's hard to see there being a sequel - and, much as I might be craving more, perhaps that would be for the best. One thing's for sure: whatever Waller-Bridge does next will have all eyes on it.

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