Phoebe Waller-Bridge on her Fringe First winner Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sex-obsessed character in her Fringe First winner Fleabag is no Bridget Jones, writes Veronica Lee
Unlike many actresses, Phoebe Waller-Bridge needn’t worry about where her next job is coming from – she also directs and produces and now she is making her debut as a writer with her one-woman show Fleabag, which yesterday won a Scotsman Fringe First award.
• The Scotsman’s 5-star review of Fleabag
“I’m greedy, I want all the cakes,” Waller-Bridge, 28, says in a conversation punctuated by laughter and self-deprecating comments. One of three children, she grew up in a middle-class family in Ealing and says she always wanted to act – “I was borderline show-off as a child” – but when she did some writing at Rada she felt liberated by it. “I wrote some terrible stuff but I think it’s important to have a go so you know what goes through other creative minds.”
Waller-Bridge has an impressive acting CV which includes film, television and theatre; she had small parts in Alfred Nobbs and The Iron Lady and more prominent roles in BBC2′s The Night Watch and The Café on Sky 1. Her West End debut – as Lindsay Duncan’s unconventional daughter, Sorel, in Hay Fever in 2012 – was described as “truly memorable” but her breakthrough role was in Mydidae at the Soho Theatre (before it transferred to Trafalgar Studios earlier this year). In the two-hander by long-time collaborator Jack Thorne (the Bafta award-winning Skins writer) Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles played a warring couple who spent much of their time naked in a bath on stage.
Fleabag deals with a different kind of nakedness as Waller-Bridge lays her (unnamed) character emotionally bare in a spellbinding hour of theatre, charting an angry, sex-obsessed young woman whose life is going nowhere and who has destroyed her relationships with her boyfriend, her business partner and best friend by her sexual voraciousness. Bridget Jones it isn’t – Waller-Bridge laughs heartily at the notion – as her character is rather unlikable, has great body confidence and uses sexually explicit language. “She really is, ‘F*** you, this is who I am’,” says the creator.
“A lot of it came out of conversations with my girlfriends – am I allowed to say I look good and I want sex? And we want to be allowed to be contradictory or sometimes say things that won’t help the feminist cause without being compromised.”
Her character is not, Waller-Bridge points out, autobiographical (although “maybe she’s the little bit of devil in us all”) but the anger she expresses about the issues surrounding the play is real.
“It came from a frustration and a rage about the objectification of women – it’s tiresome and exhausting to be surrounded by it. It’s so drilled into her brain that she sexualises everything – herself, her friends, her food, her job – and she uses internet porn all the time. She’s got to the point where she believes that sex defines her completely.
“People may recoil in horror at some of the things she says, and think she’s repulsive, but I understand her and I think other women can relate to her. There’s a vulnerability that I hope people can see.”
Fleabag is produced by DryWrite, the company Waller-Bridge co-founded in 2007 with Vicky Jones, who directs the play. As artistic directors they have an innovative approach to new writing: they set writers – who work anonymously to give them more freedom to experiment – specific briefs, for example to make the audience fall in love with a character within five minutes (measured by the audience releasing heart-shaped helium balloons), or making characters justify heinous crimes by persuasive argument, and have the audience vote as if on a jury. DryWrite has produced work for, among others, the Hampstead and Bush theatres, and has just been announced as associate company at Soho Theatre.
“It slightly started by accident,” Waller-Bridge says. “We came across this pub in Shadwell which had a room upstairs that had dead birds on the floor and mouldy old sofas and we thought, ‘What a great space’. So we cleaned it up and asked some writers to play around with some ideas and it just took off.”
She acknowledges that she and Jones started at an auspicious time. “There’s been a surge of imaginative theatre-making in the past ten years – in terms of immersive theatre and site-specific work – and we’ve been caught in that wave. But essentially we are about telling stories in an interesting way and it does feel that anything is possible now.”
In Fleabag, she certainly doesn’t go for tired old tropes – it’s striking, I say, that the men mentioned in it are not bastards. “You don’t have to be man-hating to be angry at what’s going on,” she says. “We’re all complex people and when there is no blame then we ask if there’s something slightly warped about the world we live in. And besides, theatre is not a place to judge people.”
MORE INFO: Fleabag is at Underbelly
Originally published in The Scotsman