Malthouse Theatre are serving up the deliciously dysfunctional Fleabag as part of the this year’s MICF. The award winning fringe number stumbles through a maze of social anxiety, disastrous job interviews and meaningless sex as Fleabag serves up an uproariously true account of some sort of a female living her some sort of a life.
Written, and originally performed, by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who describes the show as a play over a stand-up comedy routine, it is a one woman tour de force wherein UK-based performer, Maddie Rice, shines.
A series of monologues, highlighting a few days of the life of the titular character, Rice has been performing the role for a long time. It is the very nature of the monologues that keeps Rice engaged and makes the piece eternally fun. “It’s confessional, we get a window into Fleabag’s mind, her most candid thoughts and her biggest secrets,” says Rice. “Because of this it feels to me as if the audience is the other character on stage, so by that token, every single night I get to do the show with a different ‘actor’. The audience will react to different bits of the show every night and it feels like a new conversation. It’s constantly fresh.”
The work has had huge success on the stage and has been turned into a major British TV series. But what is the secret to Waller-Bridge’s work? Rice explains:
“Phoebe is a very clever and talented writer as she manages to do two things at the same time with this show. She holds a mirror up to the audience by being honest about sex, relationships and loneliness to the point of shocking people. Fleabag says things that the rest of us would normally only think to ourselves, keeping our mouths tightly closed unless we swear our best friend to secrecy. As an audience member it makes you realise how similar we all are and without the screen of what a woman should be and how we should behave we are all just humans who make the same mistakes. Sometimes we think we are the only ones!
Simultaneously she manages to show us the darkness that can hit a woman when she tries to react against the patriarchal view of what she is supposed to be. Fleabag goes too far, she uses sex as a power tool, rarely connecting and constantly distracting herself from feeling anything. We soon realise that as frank, funny and brutally honest as she is, she is also stained with the notion that her self worth is only based on sexual attractiveness and how men react to her.
It is hopeful in it’s honesty. If we can acknowledge what society makes us feel we have to do, step away from it and let ourselves decide how we want to act and if girls and women feel they can talk openly about what they go through without being ashamed then the show has done it’s job. Which I am certain it does.”
Rice also loves how Fleabag uses her sense of humour. She makes jokes to make you comfortable, to shock you and to mask her loneliness.
Rice grew up with the saying ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ and believes it to be a very British thing to use laughter as a coping mechanism. As an actor, Rice can connect with that and how much power being funny and witty can give you. “Fleabag doesn’t have a huge amount of friends but the friends she does have are close comrades and confidants.”
Rice also admires Fleabag’s honesty. “I speak candidly to my best friends about sex, relationships and mental health, and even then sometimes I might second guess myself or be worried that they might judge me (which they never do!) but Fleabag confesses to a huge audience without flinching and she doesn’t conform to the stereotype of a yielding, prudish and coy woman. That is powerful and encouraging.”
Rice elaborates further on why the piece resonates with so many: “I keep going back to the honesty. I think that writers, until very recently, wrote parts for women that had a shine to them. A false tint that represented those characters as cleaner, more polite, less feisty than women that I know. Phoebe has created a character that is human and flawed. People have fallen for the broken, messy woman that they recognise in their sisters, friends and themselves. People feel represented now, although there is still a huge gap to bridge. There are many more stories out there about all sorts of people that we haven’t heard yet.”
As with most comedy festivals around the world, MICF has grown exponentially over time and there is much on offer so what makes this show different and why should Melbourne audiences come along? Rice has some very gripping reasons:
“Fleabag is a beautifully original hybrid between theatre and stand up. The jokes are sublime and you will laugh a lot but you should also expect a punch in the guts. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer, is always two steps ahead of the audience and you are taken on a roller coaster of shock twists and surprising characters. This is a show for theatre goers and comedy fans alike!”
Fleabag runs until April 22
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Images: Richard Davenport