Whilst I have a post-Buxton Fringe breather (and because I want to avoid a repeat of last year’s embarrassing backlog), it’s time for another catchup now. Shortly after Brighton Fringe, both Live Theatre and Northern Stage hosted plays in their main spaces. I prioritise fringe theatre reviews over mainstream theatre reviews – the latter doesn’t really need my publicity – but with Brighton Fringe under, let’s catch up with these.
This needs no introduction. The BBC Three series was phenomenal, arguably the channel’s greatest success since its controversial move to its streaming-only service (and the strongest evidence to date that a web-only BBC Three is a viable service). But before the successful TV show written by and starring Pheobe Waller-Bridge, there were the solo fringe show she wrote herself that started it all off. With the titular role now played by Maddie Rice, it’s been, to no-one’s surprise, performing to sold out houses up and down the country. With me far too disorganised to catch up with anything on television, this was a good opportunity for me see what all the fuss in about.
We begin with Fleabag (a nickname, but Waller-Bridge never specified a real name) attending a job interview, where a PG-rated misunderstanding swiftly esclates into calling each other a slut and a pervert. Then we go back to the 18-rated story of how she got here. After she masturbates to Barack Obama’s speeches with her boyfriend beside her, he leaves her yet again. No worries, this happens all the time, and Fleabag uses this as her opportunity to work her way through as many blokes as she can. Her flat still has a handprint from the threesome she had whilst on her period – we don’t get any more details as to how that came about, but I’m happy not to know that. Suffice to say this sets the tone for most of her sex life references in the story. The rest of her life is about as chaotic as her sex life. She manages a cafe that she used to run with her beloved best friend Boo. But since Boo’s tragic accident/suicide, she muddles on with that the way she muddles on with everything.
But she can’t muddle on much longer. This time, things are coming to a head. Her boyfriend, it increasingly appears, is really going this time. Boo, we must assume, was the organised one in their business partnership – now the cafe is going down the pan, and the only chance left is a bailout from Fleabag’s loaded but uptight sister. But alas, Fleabag’s past is catching up with her. Not so much the promiscuity, but the lying and cheating that comes with it. In fact, it’s already had consequences Fleabag can’t bear to face. Her haphazard world is falling apart and she faces being left with nothing.
On the surface, Fleabag is a archetype of the classic tale where you reap what you sow. But you only need to look a little closer to see it’s more complicated than that. When you scratch under the surface it exposes all sorts of moral hypocrisies. Sure, Fleabag is hardly a paragon of moral virtue, but she is never cruel or malicious – but that doesn’t change how others paint her. It’s not just prejudices against her that get challenged – the dirty old man assumption is brought to book, and even a man facing knee-jerk judgements as a monster gets a fair hearing as a human being. But the biggest double standard has to be her sister’s husband: possibly a philanderer, possibly a predator, probably a controlling husband who stifles his wife’s career, and almost certainly a worse person than she could ever he. But since he outwardly respectable, he is believed and he gets his way.
(That doesn’t get Fleabag back into my good books though. I can forgive you for most things except one. You know what you did.)
If there’s one shortcoming I’d raise with the stage version, it’s that it’s not really a play. In spite of a few sound effects, most of the play does’t get any more visually interesting than Fleabag sitting in a chair telling her story. So normally at this point in a review I might wonder if a solo play was the best medium. Could these events be acted out instead of talked about? Probably not on stage (well, not outside of certain theatres in Amsterdam). How about television? But my speculation is redundant, because we know what happened next. Still, whether it’s the play or the TV series, I have nothing to dispute over the success Phoebe Waller-Bridge earned. A filthy comedy on the surface for sure, but an underlying moral to understand first and judge later.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
First thing’s first. If you recognise the title because of the song “Frankie and Johnny”, you may be expecting this story to end in Frankie shooting Johnny, depending what song you were listening to and what you looked up on the internet. Well, there is a link, but not the one you might expect. The earliest known version of this song appeared in 1904, about a woman who shot her lover after finding him in bed with someone else. This inspired several plays and films, and this 1987 play is sometimes put in this list, but the only thing this has in common is that the two characters happen to be called Frankie and Johnny – they even make reference to this in the play, joking over the coincidence. (I wasn’t aware that everyone in 1980s New York knows that song, but I’ll take their word for it.) Then the play became a film, and then a 1993 song came, but unlike the 1904 song of the same name this was inspired the film, so no murdering in this one. Thank you Terence McNally for helping make this so simple.
But that’s enough of that. We need to review the play. So, no murdering. Instead, the play begins and ends in the night of Frankie and Johnny’s first date where they end up tumbling in the bed, starting from as they lie in bed and ending in the early hours of the morning. Neither of them are spring chickens, and the age is important in this play. Both have a lot of baggage and disappointments in their life. Time is running out for reckless mistakes. Johnny sees Frankie as the answer to all his problems, but Frankie has already written off Johnny as a one-night stand that will go no further. Frankie wants Johnny to leave her flat. Johnny doesn’t want to let this go that easily.
Northern Stage’s associate director Mark Calvert took this on, and made it his own with some intimate touches. Stage 1 was used, but not the normal big auditorium and big stage. Instead, where the stage normally it, the audience sat either side, looking into Frankie’s flat through the windows. One small but annoying issue was that a badly-positioned fringe wreaked havoc with the sightlines for anyone sitting in the wrong seats, annoying mainly because it would have been such an easy problem to detect and address. On the whole, however, the play is choreographed well, with the tricky configuration of audience on two sides handled well. And, importantly, Calvert took a lot of care understanding how these characters make this story different to a younger couple’s tale.
However, for all the achievements with the direction, I wasn’t really sure what to make of the script. I’ve previously written about the difficulties of writing a rom com that’s stands out from all the other rom coms, and this play certainly achieves this by setting the whole story over the early hours of one night. But this comes at a price, in that there’s barely any plot structure for two hours – there’s only so many times Frankie and ask Johnny to leave before it gets repetitive. That’s not to say there’s nothing of interest – we learn a lot about their lives over two hours, and some bits are very moving, such as Johnny talking about his divorce and his family who now with a richer man, and when he comes to visit his children, they don’t look like his kids any more. But it feels to me that you could mix and mash the conversations in this play into any order and get pretty much the same thing.
Ultimately, this play, I think, stands or falls on how much you relate to it. If you see a Frankie or Johnny in yourself, then there’s a lot to recommend with this play. Without this, however, there’s not that much to fall back on. But for those who do relate to it, Northern Stage did the finest job they could do.