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March 12, 2018

From comedy to tragedy with Fleabag

It now has a life as a successful TV series, but UK theatre production Fleabag will return to its live roots with a season on-stage at this year’s Garden of Unearthly Delights.

  • Picture: Richard Davenport

When director Vicky Jones and writer / actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge began developing Fleabag, they were almost setting out to alienate their audiences.

“With our company [DryWrite] we had been playing around with having a strong direct impact on the audience,” says Vicky.

“As we were working, Phoebe became very clear that she wanted to lull them down one avenue by making them laugh and then suddenly kind of put the knife in out of nowhere.”

But far from pushing audiences away, this technique created a strong connection between audiences and the play’s eponymous character.

The one-woman show, which debuted in the UK in 2013, is structured as a monologue from Fleabag, in which her chaotic, comedic, and tragic life is slowly unspooled before the audience.

“What we worked at was suddenly revealing the character in surprising ways,” says Vicky. “For example, she’s always slagging off this guinea pig she has to look after and then she’ll say she forgot to give the guinea pig its earl grey tea. And you realise she does actually care about it and that she’s been giving you her impression of herself that is maybe not accurate.

“There is a humour that can come out from being surprised that she’s grosser or darker and more cynical than she seems, but there’s also the shock that comes from how much kinder she is than she seems to be as well.”

The play’s warm reception from critics and audiences and resultant stratospheric rise led to it being developed for TV.

Phoebe stars in the TV version, but she and Vicky wanted to continue the work’s stage life and so have recruited a new actor – Maddie Rice – to play the titular role on stage.

While Vicky has now been working on the stage show for more than five years, she says it remains ever-green because of its nature and has recently undergone a near-complete evolution thanks to the introduction of Maddie.

“Maddie is quite a different actor, which is a good thing, because it has meant I don’t give her notes that are aping Phoebe’s performance,” says Vicky. “She is a very truthful and quite emotional actor, but her main instinct is for comedy.

“Also, I think the story, the play itself, shifts a lot because the tone is such a lightly trodden path between comedy and tragedy. So that’s something I’m always trying to check on – there’s always a lot of discussion after each show about whether we’re keeping it as buoyant and surprising as it can possibly be.”

The 2018 Australian tour of Fleabag is its first time in Australia. Coming on the back of the lauded TV series, expectations will no doubt be high, but Vicky knows that live theatre can do things that a screen can’t.

“That communal experience of being a part of an audience is the most beautiful thing,” she says. “You’re basically admitting your humanity when you’re in the theatre.”

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