“Who the fuck do I think I am?” exclaims a gym gear clad Bryony Kimmings, centre-stage, mid-way through her deeply personal solo show I’m a Phoenix Bitch at HOME, as part of a tour following her highly successful run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. This question comes after she invites the audience to consider how they could form connective tissues between her story and their own processes of reconciliation with their past in a healing gesture, yet then makes the gag out of the weighty assumption that her work could hold this kind of transformative power.
And that’s what makes this 90 minute autobiographical, performance art meets drag musical so very endearing and watchable.
Kimmings is aware of the kind of preconceptions circulating her field of solo work. It’s that vapid, elitist, frolicking thing that makes people feel unintelligent, and she addresses that with those she is sharing the theatre with, through her razor sharp humour and down-to-earth direct address entirely void of ego or pretension.
This is not to say that this piece is not loaded with challenging symbolism and imagery, but it is framed in such a way by Kimmings that doesn’t make you feel like you are about to plummet through the gaping wounds of someone’s inner conscious all in the name of ‘art’. No, Kimmings maintains that she wants her audience to feel safe, she is not there to shock or frighten or guilt trip you into submission at the hands of her sad tales, but rather offer an absorbing, fresh and empowering account of the early stages of motherhood and the all consuming isolation of mental illness.
Kimmings takes us back in time, to the worst year of her life, when the foundations of her world collapsed around her in the form of the disintegration of her relationship, her newborn son falling gravely ill, and her fight with postnatal depression and psychosis. She does this by unveiling intricate set pieces dotted around the stage from under thick white sheets, like a campy version of an aggrieved family member identifying a dead relative. Each setting symbolises a particular ‘site’ that is linked to her trauma, and she guides us through these settings in an amplified representation of a technique acquired from her therapist called ‘rewinding’.
Adorned in wigs and lavish costumes, Kimmings sets up a video camera, which live streams what is happening on stage to a huge projection above her, and films herself performing a selection of hilarious jingles within these milestone landmarks. In a particular section, she moves a go-pro in between the crevices of her once beloved cottage, with tiny dolls representing her and her then boyfriend. It’s the kind of spectacle that if you explained it to a friend would sound a bit kitch and cliché, but when you witness it, it’s astonishingly effective.
At one level, she is relishing in the different roles women are programmed to assume: in the pregnancy segment of her journey, her floaty, gregarious earth mother character was particularly effective in highlighting the obscene expectations we have for women whilst they are going through what is likely one of the most physically and mentally exhausting periods of their lives.
On another level, as Kimmings guides us through her past in a fabled, folklore-like fashion, assisted by a cinematic score and close-ups of her eccentric expressions, she reveals a deeper tendency for humans to over-simplify or romanticise the dark sections of our past in order to make sense of them, to avoid drowning in the looming grey area of confusion and unsettlement caused by a lack of resolution.
Kimmings adopting the classic tropes of fantasy and horror traps her in the genre confines of a mythical creature or a victim crying out for help, and creates a saddening disconnect with the quiet, isolated sadness of her story. However, a looming, rumbling track that ascends amidst the final traumatic site foregrounds a deep dive into the dizzying psychotic turmoil induced through her postnatal depression, as she is completely immersed in sadness and guilt. The chaos and heartbreak builds and is then pierced by a deeply moving etherial score, where a broken Bryony is beckoned back to reality by her formal self.
I’m a Phoenix Bitch is as devastating as it is hopeful, as well as being achingly beautiful and entertaining as the audience are swept through the length and breadth of Kimming’s emotional scale. She meets these grand moments of blistering high drama with incredibly tender and vulnerable truths, delivered in pitch perfect fashion to remind the audience they are being ‘held’ and she’s not here to exploit them.
It is in these moments, where she is stripped of any costume or facade, the music faded out and the wreckage of that year laying waist behind her, that you realise how small she looks on the stage. And in that moment, it becomes acutely obvious what the point in all of this was, if that tiny figure on the stage can overcome and process all of that carnage, then there is hope for us all.