Review: ★★★★ Fleabag (MICF)

3 April 2018 | 12:54 pm | Stephen A Russell

"It's dark, but it's also razor sharp, snortingly funny."

How dark can comedy go before it's no longer funny? The question reared its ugly head in regards to two Barry Award-nominated comedians at last year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival - Hannah Gadsby, who went on to win for her now international hit Nanette, and runner-up Richard Gadd for his similarly confronting Monkey See Monkey Do - with some quarters getting quite harrumphy over the "Is it comedy?" conundrum.

Both tackled crippling self-doubt, not all that uncommon for stand-up, but also the aftermath of sexual violence. Less familiar ground for the festival, granted, but some of the best comedy does exactly what these two brave souls did: take us to their worst moments unexpectedly, holding the audience captive in the split second when hilarious laughter turns to frozen silence.

Fleabag is one such show. Penned and originally performed as a one-woman work by Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival, the smash hit went on to be fleshed out into a six-part dramedy series for the BBC, now showing on ABC Comedy. Directed by Vicky Jones, Maddie Rice admirably steps into Waller-Bridge's role of a here-unnamed woman with an unapologetically high sex drive, mourning the loss of her best friend in an accidental suicide while trying, largely unsuccessfully, to keep their inexplicably guinea pig-themed cafe afloat.

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Those familiar with the TV series will know how this plays out, but even still, there's great power in stripping the show right back to this complicated, outrageously funny and deeply sad woman who, yes, has a knack for arresting our laughter by slitting open a shocking seam of darkness.

Aided only with occasional audio interjections, including the framing mechanism of a job application gone inexorably wrong, Rice does most of the heavy lifting. Whether musing on the character's porn addiction and the handy flat-cleaning benefits of a regularly lost boyfriend, or taking the innocuous guinea pig running joke to a grotesque space far beyond the pale that's bound to personal tragedy, Rice handles the swift shifts with aplomb.

Often it's what falls between the lines that hits hardest, with a pained look conveying heartache and shame. When an encounter with a cafe regular who is an anchor amidst darker waters also becomes unmoored, and a betrayal is dredged up grudgingly, it's a testament to Waller-Bridge's writing that we stay with this conflicted soul. And never, even in Fleabag's deepest probing of messy human socialising and sexuality, does it succumb to moral finger-wagging.

Yes, it's dark, but it's also razor sharp, snortingly funny and, from time to time, rather disarmingly beautiful too. For my money, comedy is a broad church that can, and indeed probably should, startle us more often. As an art form, comedy is one of the most conducive to getting us to let down our guards and, in that sweet and sometimes-stark spot, occasionally changing minds, with a subversively feminist power at play here.

Fleabag plays until 22 Apr at Malthouse Theatre, part of the 2018 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.