‘You’re in safe hands’ says Bryony Kimmings, towards the start of the show. She makes a joke of it – she does this for a living, she’s got insurance, she’s DBS police-checked – but the truth is, we are safe, and she is safe. Because despite everything – the intense autobiographical material, the recounting of terrible and traumatic events, the pain and the drama and the catharsis manifest onstage – this is theatre, delivered with immense skill and presence by a highly talented and experienced theatre-maker. We are taken to the edge of the precipice, and we are brought back again. Harrowing though it all is, I never feel that she will push us or herself too far. It is all done with kindness, and delivered like a gift.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch – unsurprisingly – is a survival story. There are numerous Bryonys in the show, all played with great aplomb by, yes, Bryony. In a blonde wig and red sequinned dress, she is old Bryony – the cabaret star Bryony who drank and danced and dragged up and created solo shows with names like Sex Idiot and 7 Day Drunk. Merging live action and screen image (using live feed video), we also meet the country-pop singing Bryony who always feels she needs to impress new boyfriends with her all-day breakfasts, the new age Blissed Out Paradise of Motherhood Bryony who is planning a home birth surrounded by flowers and candles. Then, after the birth, there’s the wasted Ophelia Bryony who is not waving but drowning in a muddy mire of post-natal breakdown spurred on by a disintegrating relationship and a very sick baby.
In talking of the birth and the first year of her little boy Frank’s life, she gives us one of the most potent images of maternal love I’ve ever encountered – it is as if, she says, someone has pulled her heart out from her chest and placed it, raw and bleeding, in her arms. We learn of the baby’s endless epileptic fits and the many emergency hospital visits and appointments with consultants (Bryony and partner Tim now isolated in their distress, and no longer living together), the story told using the brilliant device of a bench-press and dumb-bells – Bryony lifting ever-heavier weights as she repeats her mantra, I Am Strong, after sharing each harrowing new chapter in baby Frank’s life.
The show freely commandeers a wide range of theatrical devices in the telling of its tales. There’s plenty of direct-to-audience patter, with the familiar Bryony Kimmings wit always on hand ‘Farrow and fucking Ball on every wall, mate’ she says, talking of creating her dream home, the cottage in the countryside she is living in with partner Tim. This dream home is represented onstage in model form – a kind of spooky dolls house falling apart at the seams, with the post-natal depression, sick and crying baby, advancing rainwater from the overflowing stream, mice infestations in the thatched roof, and disintegrating marriage all seemingly contributing to its disintegration, lending it an evermore nightmarish aspect. Live feed video is once again used to good effect – but this time it is tiny dolls inside the house who we see in close up.
In a long, mostly non-verbal and visual, section a ‘wild witch in the woods’ Bryony is seen in the forest beyond the house, dressed like a Wilkie Collins character in a long white gown, communing with her old red-sequin-clad self. Here, as in other sections, the visual design, sound composition, and physical action come together brilliantly to create what can genuinely be called a total theatre – form and content are merged seamlessly throughout the show.
There is resolution, and we are brought full-circle to present-day Bryony’s resolve to stay strong, and just keep on keeping on. She can see the road ahead now. She has moved to Brighton, she’s a single mother, and she’s doing the best for her little family. She doesn’t know what’ll happen with Frank, but she is recording little messages for him daily, so he will perhaps one day know something of his early life, and his mother’s journey. All ‘part of her healing process’ – a line she delivers with typical Bryony irony, humour and mock contempt. Significantly, her inner critic (personified, using a clever vocal effect, as a middle-aged male theatre producer) is now silenced.
So there we are – take a bow, Bryony Kimmings, invincible and fearless woman. She’s a Phoenix, Bitch. And you’d better believe it.
Featured image (top) Bryony Kimmings: I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. Photo by The Other Richard