It’s possible you haven’t heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and you might wonder how her American stage debut Fleabag, at SoHo Playhouse through April 14, sold out its entire run before she gave a single performance. (Resale tickets currently command more than $1,000 on StubHub.) Well, the solo show – which originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and later took London by storm – spawned a sitcom that U.S. viewers fell in love with on Amazon Prime. Waller-Bridge also writes the hugely popular BBC America show Killing Eve.
Moreover, Waller-Bridge is the type of captivating performer who can hold an audience rapt while exerting almost no visible energy. I don’t know what your bank account currently looks like, but if you feel comfortable dropping a grand to spend an hour in her company, I won’t judge.
Waller-Bridge spends all but a few moments of the play’s 65 minutes seated on a high-backed chair that seems to be floating in a black sea of negative space. (Holly Pigott designed the barebones set.) From that perch, she creates an entire world largely through vocal dynamics, carefully calibrated gestures, and an ear for crisp, witty dialogue that rivals any playwright of her generation. Under Vicky Jones’s simple but precise direction, she individuates character shifts with startling alacrity.
“How does she do that?” the woman seated next to me whispered to her companion near the end of the first scene, a disastrously fraught job interview in which Waller-Bridge simultaneously portrays a candidate misreading the moment and a businessman operating under the cloud of sexual harassment allegations. In a split second, she grows so stern and officious that you disbelieve your eyes and convince yourself the person in front of you is a middle-aged financier rather than the strikingly tall young woman you actually see. It’s acting at its simplest and most transporting.
She flits from person to person, swapping genders and even species as the play progresses. The primary focus is a tour of the title character’s contemporary London life, presented with caustic, charming wit. (Who among us hasn’t had an embarrassingly impure thought about Zac Efron or President Obama?) She courts tragedy with the show’s central theme – the death of Fleabag’s business partner, with whom she ran a guinea-pig café (not a typo) – but entirely resists maudlin excess. Unlike other works that marry humor to misfortune, you never sense that Waller-Bridge is grasping to soften or diffuse a moment. This is simply how Fleabag processes the world she inhabits.
As a performer steeped in the Edinburgh Fringe tradition of solo monology, Waller-Bridge understands that once an audience is hooked, they will follow you anywhere. The comedy disarms the audience, allowing her to land a gut punch late in the play. I won’t reveal where the story goes, but be prepared to catch your breath. In that respect, she shares similarities with the Australian comic and monologist Hannah Gadsby, whose landmark Nanette occupied the tiny SoHo Playhouse stage last year before Netflix catapulted her to international stardom. Both women understand that big, complicated emotions exist simultaneously, and the most effective way to approach them is often the most surprising.
Fleabag takes its audience on an emotional journey that will feel simultaneously cringe-worthy and relatable to many. That’s a simple fact of life for so many – being alive is complex and contradictory, a wonderful and frustrating slog – and Waller-Bridge captures it with a documentarian’s eye. Along the way, she joins the pantheon of singular performers who use little more than their voice and their keen observational skills to communicate multitudes.