Robert Jackman

When Fleabag was a play everyone slagged it off – except The Spectator

When Fleabag was a play everyone slagged it off – except The Spectator
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Over the past six weeks something odd has happened. Head to the culture pages of any newspaper and you can’t miss it: the increasingly frantic praise for Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s smash-hit sitcom, has reached crisis point. What started as a collective love-in is now full-blown hysteria.

After Monday’s finale, critics resembled devotees of a religious cult as they rushed to outdo each other with their tributes. One was literally speechless: Fleabag having ‘raised the bar so utterly’ that ‘all one could do was shake one’s head in appreciation’. The Guardian, rarely outdone in these things, published a guide to help its readers ‘survive after Fleabag’. The commentariat, it seems, is truly smitten.

But it wasn’t always this way. Back in 2013, Fleabag was a low-budget, one-woman play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, still a relative unknown, was the writer and lead. When word-of-mouth recommendations began to get around, broadsheet critics decided to see what the fuss was about. It’s fair to say they weren’t bowled over.

In a lukewarm review for the Guardian, Lyn Gardner called Fleabag ‘gleefully filthy’ but was quick to add that it wasn’t a ‘flawless piece of writing’ (three stars out of five!). Laura Barnett, writing for the Daily Telegraph, was similarly unimpressed, calling its anti-heroine ‘distinctly unlikeable’ and predicting that its appeal wouldn’t reach beyond ‘the hipster enclaves of east London’. The Times found it ‘a tad contrived’.

Only one critic was brave enough to say otherwise: The Spectator’s Lloyd Evans. In a rave review from September 2013 (after the show transferred to the wonderful Soho Theatre), Lloyd called Fleabag ‘riveting’, advising any budding film moguls that they should ‘set about raising capital for a big-screen version straight away.’

Six years later and it seems Lloyd was bang on the money: following an initial outing on BBC Three (about which some critics were still lukewarm), Fleabag was quickly transferred to the big channels before being picked up by Amazon. Since then, it’s scooped BAFTAs, been praised to the hills, and even made it in America. A third series – if Waller-Bridge would entertain the idea – would have Netflix executives reaching for their cheque-books quicker than you can say bidding war.

And what about the agnostics? Luckily they were given a chance to repent when the stage version returned to Soho for a victory lap at the end of 2016. In a five-star review for the Guardian, Mark Lawson compared it to ‘hearing the studio demo of a classic pop track’. The Telegraph, too, rushed to give the show top marks, albeit with the coy admission that its content ‘wasn’t for everyone’ (its previous reviewer for one). The Times braved a four-star verdict (albeit on the grounds that it lacked Olivia Colman as the evil stepmother).

We’re just glad everyone else has finally caught up...