AS the acclaimed play – which later became a popular television show – comes to Hove, its co-creator Vicky Jones tells EDWIN GILSON about the special friendship and social inequalities that fuel Fleabag

IT ALL started with two close friends in a room, baring their souls to each other.

Before Fleabag was an award-winning stage show and cult BBC television programme, it was a seed in the minds of Pheobe Waller-Bridge (whose role as the title character has catapulted her into the spotlight) and writer Vicky Jones.

Honesty has always been the best policy for the pair. Fleabag has won plaudits for its unflinching portrayal of the chaotic, sometimes traumatic life of a 20-something woman.

“We went into a rehearsal room and had an intense process of being as honest as we could with each other,” says Vicky of Fleabag’s origins. The show would go on to receive five-star reviews in its first run at Edinburgh Fringe five years ago. Pheobe was putting the finishing touches to the script while on the train to Scotland.

Vicky is directing the version of the play that comes to The Old Market next month, with Maddie Rice in the lead role.

“Pheobe was saying all these things she’d wanted to say for a really long time – she was completely direct and told the truth about being a woman today,” adds Vicky.

“In our friendship there are no obstacles to us saying anything. It’s almost like daring each other to say what we really think. We get a rush out of doing that.”

When they were dreaming up the character of Fleabag – which was the nickname given to Phoebe by her family – the two women worried that she wouldn’t be likeable enough. Indeed, The Guardian’s (very positive) write-up of the TV show after its first airing in 2016 called it a “hilarious sitcom about terrible people and broken lives”.

Fleabag runs a cash-haemorrhaging cafe, has a volatile relationship with her on-off boyfriend and fills the void in her life with meaningless sexual encounters. But she is entirely magnetic, partly thanks to her soliloquies to camera.

As Vicky says, this narrative device – which owes much to Fleabag’s theatrical beginnings – “makes the audience feel like Pheobe only wants to talk to them”. Going even further back, Fleabag started life as a ten-minute monologue delivered by Phoebe at a storytelling night.

“Pheobe is very fearless, she always has been,” says the director. “She has always had a strong sense that she would never let fear get in the way of speaking to an audience.”

Phoebe has said that she was motivated by a sense of injustice when creating Fleabag – a simmering fury at the way in which women are portrayed and restricted in society.

It’s an anger that Vicky shares. Her most recent play, Touch, which premiered in London last year, tackles many of the same themes as Fleabag, most notably in its treatment of sexual politics and structural inequalities.

Interestingly, Vicky says that she and Phoebe didn’t know they were angry before they began to share ideas. They certainly know it now. “What plagues me and most women is the thought that we aren’t good enough,” she says. “It’s been drummed into us along the line that we are only of use in terms of our appearance. That, really, really hurts. It’s hard to overcome that and to find yourself aside from all that.”

She adds that Touch is about how that perception of yourself “can mess you up in terms of wanting to have a fulfilling sex life”. Because of its main character and general content, it would be easy to assume that Fleabag has attracted a predominantly young female audience.

While it’s undeniable the show has struck a chord with that demographic – perhaps more so than any programme before it – Vicky has been surprised at the range of people who taken it to their hearts.

“One of the amazing things about Fleabag is that loads of people have come up to Phoebe and said they loved it, whether it’s big blokes in the pub or an older couple.”

Vicky believes that its universal appeal comes down to the fact that everyone can identify with Fleabag’s inner tumult. We might not share her exact anxieties, but we are all overcome with emotion from time to time.

The memorable scene in which the character breaks down in tears on the street, for instance, is etched into the minds of viewers.

“It comes down to performance – Pheobe’s so good at showing there’s a painful soul in there,” says Vicky. “She believes the character is in pain, and a lot of us are in pain. We all have bleak thoughts.”

As for the connection the show has formed with women in their twenties, Vicky adds that it’s more a pleasing by-product than a direct intention.

“It was never particularly aimed at that demographic but it was about being a younger women who had been badly affected by things like porn and the oversexualisation of women,” she says. “We talked about how that is getting worse all the time.”

In a 2016 interview, Pheobe pondered these topics. “Am I still a feminist if I watch porn, of if I want to change my body to make me feel more sexually attractive?”

That thematic exploration is sure to continue when Fleabag’s eagerly-anticipated second season is broadcast next year. Vicky has said that Maddie makes the role her own in the current stage incarnation. It’s a tricky skill to recreate a character completely born from the mind and life of another writer and actor, but Maddie pulls it off.

“She comes from comedy, so for her the funny has always been the easiest part,” says Vicky. “The difference is that Phoebe came from that dark place and then put comedy on top.”

There are plenty of lines in the show that come loaded with shock value, but one of the great traits of Fleabag is that it has smashed perceptions of what is acceptable to say on screen and stage. The truer it is, the better. It’s difficult to criticise something that comes entirely from the heart.

“People don’t judge Pheobe at all,” says Vicky. “They wouldn’t dare.”