I have been watching Bryony’s shows for years; it was often her work – their intoxicating blend of autobiography and performance art – that kept my passion for theatre burning during some dry periods. But I have often wondered what pressure Bryony Kimmings works under to be ‘Bryony Kimmings.’ What burden must there be to play up to what you have created because even autobiography wears a mask of sort?
Well, in I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, I finally get my answer. And it is a heart-breaking one for, here, Bryony uses the personal traumas she has endured over the past five years to rip off the masks she has been wearing in private and public, to share the true impact of post-natal depression, anxiety and deep-seated childhood insecurities.
The result is an undeniably powerful piece of work. For, in the past few years, Bryony met the love of her life, set up a happy home, had a baby boy – but then crashed and burnt as her son was diagnosed with severe seizures, her loving relationship turned into a state of enmity, her happy home became a prison that fed her nightmares, and her own sanity unravelled as a claustrophobic and dangerous depression took hold.
This could be too much heavy emotional lifting for an audience to take but in Bryony’s hands that doesn’t feel the case. Her gallows humour and undeniable stage presence help a lot, but her writing is superb and blends beautifully (as always) with some cracking original songs from herself and Tom Parkinson.
And it’s the masks that women wear that Bryony uses to frame this play such as that double mask of of sexy in the bedroom/mother in the kitchen to hook the partner of our dreams, and the earth mother in our pregnant bodies.
But these masks do untold damage to our psychologies and as Bryony weaves in Dictaphone reflections from her mother, the negative automatic thoughts from her brain, and suggestions from her therapist to confront the power these traumatic events have over her, we too are forced to question what we are living with, what shame we are hiding, and how open discussions about mental health can save us all.
There’s no doubt this show isn’t as funny as some of her other plays, such as Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model and Sex Idiot. And it’s not as upbeat either. It marks a step change in terms of material, but there’s no doubt it also marks a step change in production too for there is some impressive design work from Kirsty Housley and David Curtis-Ring that sees Bryony use horror movie tropes to dramatize how her mind sabotaged her balance and brought her to breaking point. I’ve never seen such an ambitious design for a one person show before. It’s extraordinary.
I like the fact that there is no sense of victory here or finished business for life does not work like that. But Bryony’s message about the need for honesty with yourself and others is a critical one. Many will find this work cathartic, others will take great strength and encouragement from Bryony’s willingness and bravery to lay it all out. Either way, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch demonstrates that Bryony has been sorely missed. Take strength from your audiences, B. We love you.
Battersea Arts Centre, London, to October 20, 2018
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Rosie Powell.