Full Cast - Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Rufus Wright and Lu Corfield

Brutal or brutally funny?

The One – Soho Theatre, until 30 March 2014

In the middle of one of the many conversations between Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Harry (Rufus Wright) that tread an impossibly fine line between needling argument and verbal foreplay, Jo’s mobile phone goes off. The ringtone is familiar but not quite identifiable, moments later, before the chorus kicks in, Jo answers the phone with ‘Hi Mum’ and at the same moment you realise that she has set the ring tone to be I Touch Myself by the DiVinyls.

Vicky Jones’ The One is a play that is peppered with jokes that rely on an audience with an eye for high and low cultural reference points and a penchant for filthy dialogue. It is as comfortable expounding on Madame The one  Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus WrightBovary as it is in displaying the realities of unengaged sex. There are some brutally funny lines in The One and there also some just plain brutal ones. It is a play that sets out to shock its audience and it more than succeeds in doing so.

DryWrite, the theatre company created by Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was the force behind two of the most unexpected treats of 2013, Mydidae and Fleabag. With The One this creative partnership have created a trio of plays that, while formally unconnected, work together to create a portrait of dysfunction within a certain strata of well-educated, middle class women in 21st century Britain. As a whole they form a serious and important contribution to the ongoing cultural debate about whether there are ways that women should live and behave in the context of feminism as being something that had been ‘won’.

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Waller-Bridge excels in each of the plays. She inhabits characters that clearly show the challenges of women who have grown up to believe in the freedoms hard won by their parents but struggle to shape an identity for themselves in a society that is still undeniably masculine.

At the heart of Mydidae and The One is the presence of a formidably intelligent woman who self-censures herself in order to maintain the fantasy of the dominant male. In both cases the self-censuring has a warping effect and the emasculating quality of the action (even as it seeks to avoid this very outcome) ultimately leads to displays of violence; physical, sexual and emotional.

The One demonstrates writing of exceptional quality and Jones’ displays a real talent for carving heightened language out of the banality of the everyday; creating prose that is grounded in reality whilst seeming disturbingly unreal. That the play is set over the course of the evening and scenes are intercut with Phantom of the Opera’s The Music of the Night adds to the sensation that is closer to nightmarish dreamscape than the real world.

Yet this is no Athenian forest and here there is no honest Puck to make amends and to ensure that Jo and Harry ‘think no more of this night’s accidents’. Rather than sleep and awake to a new dawn, they continue their conversations until sunrise when they are forced to look at each other in the harsh light of day.

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Fleabag: A very modern heroine

Fleabag – DryWrite @ Soho Theatre, until 22 September 2013

In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a terrifying portrait of a person who embodies two of the major movements in modern society; the continuing reverberations of the feminist movement running headlong into society’s obsession with individualism and self-actualisation. It is of a person whose self-involved narcissism and belief in the right to be free to control one’s life-choices blinds them to any impact their actions may have on others. Fleabag continually rejects culpability for the paths she takes and even refines poor decisions into positive self-affirming actions. Fleabag is a 21st century manifestation of the id, rampant and uncontrolled.

It is also the funniest play that has hit London this year.

Rare is the playwright that truly captures the language of real life and turns it into something dramatically interesting. I have regularly extolled the virtues of Nick Payne for his skill in crafting modern, believable dialogue for his Fleabag - our eponymous anti-heroinecharacters; Waller-Bridge shares this talent whilst going further to infuse it with a poetic, heightened language that is rooted in the everyday.

It is startling to be confronted by a modern text that so positively drips with a love for sonorous language but yet doesn’t strive to root itself in the past. Every line feels written by someone with a deep respect for classical theatre but who understands that respect is best shown by not looking backwards and instead immersing yourself in the culture that surrounds you.

Monologues are as pure a form of theatre as it gets for writers and performers; there is no hiding place, the production rests and falls on the skill of the actor and the quality of language. Waller-Bridge spent a fair proportion of her last production, Mydidae, naked on stage so is better placed than most to quibble about the nature of exposure but Fleabag contains a ruthless emotional honesty that is shockingly, brutally, exposing.

Mydidae explored how removing our physical covering makes it easier to create a passage to the emotional core, whereas Fleabag removes all pretence and from its first moments delves into the deepest crevices of the mind of an independent, assured modern woman and probes it for cracks in the surface; the vulnerabilities that face all woman in an age of supposed liberation – political, economic, social and above all else, sexual.

For this is a monologue that is steeped in the current dialogues surrounding feminism and what it means to the generation that did not have to fight for it. It is here that Fleabag demonstrates the elements that have seen it be championed as one of the picks of the Edinburgh Fringe. It studiously avoids the polemics and instead displays its arguments through subtle highlighting of how hard-won equality under the law is still being undermined by socio-cultural norms.

©Richard Davenport 2013. 2nd August 2013. Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag at the Big Belly, Underbelly. Photo Credit: Richard DavenportWaller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a monster – a ravenous sexual entity that seemingly cannot discriminate between friend and conquest, desire and lust, attraction and obsession – but constantly the audience is reminded of how this may be viewed if the person delivering the monologue was a man.

The player/slut debate that Fleabag circles has been around for years and may seem like a hoary old trope but that doesn’t make it any less valid a reference point. A generation of woman have been brought up to believe that the battle has been won but changing the law does not lead to changing lives. The Twitter trolls and the campaigns over the increased use of sexualised imagery on the front covers of lads mags has shown that skirmishes continue.

Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag uses her body as a tool for her own personal gratification and talks in the frankest terms of an obsessive relationship with pornography. Does this debase her or does it set her free? Has she been enslaved by a masculine-fantasy of feminist equality – the idea that freedom to choose means becoming a hedonist to pleasure – or is she is a liberated self-actualised feminist who has rejected the traditional gender values of chastity and purity placed on woman by a patriarchal society?

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