Read: ‘Fleabag’ is the filthy antiheroine TV deserves
The night also demonstrated the currency of celebrity. There is only one Phoebe Waller-Bridge to go round, making her physical presence incredibly valuable. As both an actor and a writer, she is in high demand; she reportedly had to pass on writing for the second series of Killing Eve because her schedule is packed with Bond films and Star Wars cameos and God knows what else. Seeing Waller-Bridge do Fleabag this one final time, therefore, carries potent bragging rights. People I know keep posting Instagram pictures of the set, despite it being ... a single chair.
It felt less like a traditional theater performance and more like a rock concert: Everyone knew the words. As a play, Fleabag gets its emotional punch from a twist—a revelation of its protagonist’s bad behavior—and so the story line is inevitably less powerful on subsequent viewings. But that didn’t seem to matter to the crowd. Just as everyone attends a Rolling Stones gig expecting to hear “Gimme Shelter,” so this audience wanted to hear about Tube Rodent, and the guinea-pig café, and Fleabag’s sister’s monthly hair crisis. They saw the punch lines coming. They didn’t care. The laughs started even before the first joke was out.
This was an encore performance in every sense of the phrase: a lap of honor for a beloved national treasure. When it was revealed last year that the most-watched show on Netflix was The Office, followed by Friends—a cozy sitcom now old enough to vote—it was confirmation that the array of choice offered by modern life has, paradoxically, driven many of us back to our comfort zones. Yes, Netflix has Chinese-language dramas about an emperor’s wives, and Israeli military thrillers, and French shows about celebrity agents. Such riches! And yet we scroll past these for another dose of Ross and Rachel.
Fleabag’s opening night was also notable for the presence of Britain’s feminist aristocracy, including its grand duchess, the journalist Caitlin Moran; the lawmaker Stella Creasy; the host of the BBC’s Late Night Woman’s Hour, Lauren Laverne; and the host of The Guilty Feminist podcast, Deborah Frances-White. From the start, the show has been held up as a groundbreaking feminist show, and a show particularly aimed at women.
Read: ‘Fleabag’ has a poignant insight about sisterhood
Much has been written about how Fleabag is frank in its discussion of sex, and how it allows a female protagonist to be flawed, selfish, and self-destructive. The main character discovers that she and her sister are “bad feminists” for saying they would trade five years of their lives for the perfect body. She and her friend Boo, played in the TV series by Jenny Rainsford, sing nonsense ukulele songs about “modern women.” Fleabag talks about periods, and cystitis, and being attracted to Barack Obama. This focus feels both liberating—women can be rude, too!—and limiting. Why is all this just for girls? Why can’t a woman’s art be universal, in the way that Portnoy’s Complaint, that masturbation odyssey, is a Great American Novel, rather than a Great Male American Novel?