thu 18/07/2019

Fleabag, Series 2 review - a standing ovation | reviews, news & interviews

Fleabag, Series 2 review - a standing ovation

Fleabag, Series 2 review - a standing ovation

Phoebe Waller-Bridge knocks it out of the park as the show returns to BBC Three and BBC One

Phoebe Waller-Bridge kicked off the second series with a superb half hourBBC/Two Brothers/Luke Varley

What a super-talented woman Phoebe Waller-Bridge is. Hot on the heels of the success of her adaptation of Killing Eve, she now spoils us with a second series of Fleabag (BBC Three, then BBC One) that opened with an episode so gobsmackingly good that I wanted to give her a standing ovation in my living room when I watched it for the second time. (In fact, like everybody else at a press screening a few weeks ago, I had done just that.)

Fleabag began life as a one-woman show (directed by Waller-Bridge's long-time collaborator Vicky Jones) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Waller-Bridge then pulled off that rare thing of rounding out a solo character into a multi-actor sitcom for a series in 2016. She was helped, of course, that Fleabag is so full of vim and verve, not to mention neuroses and millennial anxieties, that her rich inner life keeps on giving.

So it would be easy, and even understandable, for Waller-Bridge to give us more of the same for the second series. But no, she jolted the story into new territory by starting it, as the opening caption told us, 371 days, 19 hours and 26 minutes after the events of the first series, when she had fallen out with her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) after Fleabag told her that Claire's sleazy husband, Martin (Brett Gelman), had propositioned her. Fleabag's relationship with her widowed Dad (Bill Paterson) was equally fractured by her dislike of her manipulative Godmother (Olivia Colman).

The show opened with a punch (literally, as we were about to find out), with Fleabag and another woman in the ladies' at a posh restaurant, bloodied and both in shock. Fleabag looked straight down the camera and said “This is a love story” and we were transported back to the beginning of the evening to a more conventional sitcom setting as she joined her family for a celebratory meal. Dad and Godmother are getting married, and Claire, Martin and Fleabag were there to meet the Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott, pictured below) who is to perform the ceremony.FleabagThere was much tension in the air as this family gathered for the first time in more than a year, and the passive-aggressive exchanges were a treat. Knowing that her sister had been on a health kick, Claire said: “Putting pine nuts on your salad doesn’t make you a grown-up.” Instantly Fleabag responded, like a mouthy 10-year-old: “Fucking does.”

Fleabag, as Waller-Bridge's wry voiceover and arch looks to camera told us, is trying to rise above her sadness over her broken relationships, and tamp down her hatred for Martin and her Godmother. She was trying so hard, in fact, that her Dad asked her if she was OK, because she wasn't being “naughty”. Fleabag found an unexpected ally in the Priest, who is as foul-mouthed and as mischievous as she is. I do hope they are going to have some adventures together in this series – but how does a celibate priest fit into this sex-positive woman's life?

There were so many great moments in this episode, from whip-smart dialogue to great physical comedy. And the punch? Well, it was a sucker punch as nobody, not least its recipient, saw it coming, which made it all the more glorious. And yes, it was the person you wanted it to be, but there were innocent bystanders injured too.

But running through this were the strands of pain in these people's lives: the strains in Claire's marriage, the sisters' dislike of Godmother, Fleabag's vulnerability and her continuing feeling of being adrift with no rescue boat in sight.

Comedy characters aren’t supposed to feel pain, but Waller-Bridge – while providing some out-and-out great gags, visual and verbal – lets us glimpse their inner lives and experience the same feelings, while also being safely on the outside, horribly aware that bad behaviour has consequences. Shouting “No!” at the TV doesn't stop Fleabag saying or doing the thing that adds to her emotional confusion. And how many writers would dare make a joke – heart-rending, but still – about miscarriage followed by one about how fit the Priest is?

This is writing of the highest order, with not an extraneous word or gesture, but Waller-Bridge was equalled by Harry Bradbeer's assured direction and the cast's spot-on acting; and Scott (along with Fiona Shaw and Kristin Scott Thomas, who join the series later) is a very welcome addition.

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