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Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag, writing, and dirty jokes

“I love the Soho audience with such a passion I could leap onto them and kiss each one as they enter the theatre.”

“I love the Soho audience with such a passion I could leap onto them and kiss each one as they enter the theatre.”

Ahead of the return of her acclaimed show Fleabag to the Soho Theatre, we caught up with writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge…

London Calling: First of all a belated congratulations for the show and the response it’s had in the past year! How are preparations going for the revival?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge: Thank you! It’s been such a ride. I’m so pleased we are doing it again or it would feel too much like a dream. We’re in the main space at the Soho this time, which is a new challenge. It’s easy to underestimate how much intimacy comes for free in the smaller space where you pretty much perform on laps of the front row. I will, no doubt, feel much smaller and further away from the audience this time (aaaaaaghgh). But, luckily, we have a dream team who have conjured up a brilliant set to save the day.

LC: Can you remember what originally inspired you to write the play? Where did the idea come from?

PWB: It started as a short monologue that the brilliant Deborah Frances-White asked me to write as part of the London Storytelling Festival. I was terrified because it was mainly comedians on the bill performing short stories. Having panicked, full throttle, for a week I finally thought - oh fuck iiiiiit…. what have I got to lose? I wrote what turned out to be the beginning of Fleabag. My process began with writing things that I thought would make Vicky Jones (director/ life-line) laugh. I sent it to her and she got behind it, gave me some awesome notes and the mini version of the play was born. A few weeks later our producer Francesca had somehow convinced the Underbelly to programme a full length version, so I was literally forced to write it. It’s the best way to work I think. If you have an opening night in the diary you have to turn up with something.

I knew I wanted to write about sex and porn and the effects of the over-sexualisation of women in our media culture. But I also wanted to write a character who was naughty. The dangerous bits felt the most exciting to write… not knowing how people were going to react gave the process an addictive tingle of trepidation and rebellion.

LC: What made you decide to perform it yourself? How did your relationship with the show change during rehearsals, when you stopped being the writer and became the performer?

PWB: Part of the incentive of writing in the first place was to come up with a character I would like to perform. Plus I’m a control freak. But I’ve got it out of my system now. I would love to see someone else do it. Especially in another country. I know there are productions in Poland and Israel, I’d kill to see those!

I’d say I never had to consciously separate the two roles. We did get to a point when I had to stop rewriting and just start working with the play we had though. I was still writing it on the train on the way to Edinburgh, so it was pretty late in the game to let go anyway (control freak). I think I drove everyone insane.

LC: How much of yourself is in the show?

It’s very much my sense of humour. Some of the material was born out of moments I have experienced or imagined experiencing. But they were mainly the comedic bits. Sorry. I can never tell if people want me to say it’s all true or not! It would be pretty terrifying if it was...

LC: Have you changed anything since last year’s run?

PWB: A couple of tweaks here and there, but not really. Once we get in the space I’m sure things will change a little. I’ve been very tempted to sneak a dream-sequence from the pre-Edinburgh previews back in. We had to cut it because of the time constraints. God, I loved that bit so much, but if you can cut something and the play still holds then it shouldn’t be there. Boring, but true. I’m not allowed to put it back.

LC: What’s it like performing at the Soho Theatre – how do you find the audiences there?

PWB: I love the Soho audience with such a passion I could leap onto them and kiss each one as they enter the theatre. Soho attracts the risk-takers, the adrenaline junkies of the theatre world. A show that has had almost no pre-sales will sell out on the night from walk-ups. People flock there. They know they are going to be pushed, challenged, made to laugh. It’s a place that’s worth taking a punt on. The tickets are cheap, the work is brilliant and the bar is a constant party. It’s a whirlpool of awesomeness.

LC: What do you think people take away from the show?

PWB: People seem to have very different personal reactions. Different bits speak to different people. Some people hate it. I heard one man say “THAT got five stars in the SCOTSMAN? Jeeeeesus.” There was also a girl in tears whose bewildered boyfriend asked if I’d come and speak to her. When I did she said she didn’t know why she was having that reaction. Some people just love the dirty jokes, some feel it’s an accurate portrayal of our generation (well chuffed with that one, if a little scared), but on the whole people say they had a good time - which is the whole point, so I’m thrilled.

LC: As you’ve experienced the Edinburgh Fringe can be a great launchpad for new work. What’s your take on the festival?

PWB: It’s a blast. Everyone’s an equal. It’s a theatrical leveller and completely necessary for the generation of new work. I drank too much and I didn’t see enough. I felt somewhere between exhilarated and eviscerated by the time I left.

LC: What are you working on next?

PWB: I’m adapting Fleabag for TV and have a few other projects bubbling away. Lots more TV acting towards the end of the year. I’m getting as much written as possible right now. This may be the only time in my life when people are actually interested in my stuff so I’m going hell for leather!

Fleabag is on at the Soho Theatre from 7th – 25th May. Tickets £15 - £22.50, available here.

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