‘Often, breathtaking in its courage’: I’M A PHOENIX, BITCH – Battersea Arts Centre ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Carole WoddisLeave a Comment

Battersea Arts Centre, London – until 20 October 2018

The last time I saw Bryony Kimmings, it was at Soho in 2015. She was appearing in a show with her then partner, Tim. Fake It ’Til You Make It was the story of Tim’s journey through depression and their joint coming to terms with it – a sort of ‘coming out’ with the message that’s it’s okay for a man to say he’s suffering from depression. It doesn’t take away his masculinity. It was witty, playful, visually imaginative and very, very moving.

Three years on and Kimmings, a performance artist of immense talent and audacity has been through the mill herself: post-natal depression that took the form of a mental meltdown, the collapse of her relationship with Tim and her young son becoming very ill with epilepsy.

Being a performance artist, as Kimmings puts it, “I process this shit then make art out of it.” She certainly does. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is her story of survival but told with a flair, emotional and physical honesty and theatrical artistry that is, often, breathtaking in its courage.

She starts off light-heartedly enough, welcoming the packed audience, drawing knowing laughter from throwaway, self-deprecating lines. We, the audience, are soon entirely complicit and drawn into the journey on which she’s about to take us which by the end is nothing less than gruelling – for her as much as for us.

For, being a performance artist, her artistry is the honesty of showing us everything as it happens. There is no sense of anything being ‘false’ even though the resources she uses, apart from her own strengthened body and performing skills, come in several digital guises, not least the video-cam as she adopts various singing persona including look-alike satires on Marilyn Monroe/Dolly Parton eyelash flashing sirens and a bug-eyed Joan Crawford. Make-up and wigs are donned in full view, a garment added and la voila!

It’s brilliant stuff but this `reality show’ fun barely prepares us for what is to follow as the woman, Bryony Kimmings morphs into a `mother’, her body begins to feel alien as `a site for feeding’ and her vagina `like a chasm’. Nobody, she says, prepares you for the changes brought about by giving birth.

From there, her descent into an emotional hell plunges her into terrifying depths of paranoia and guilt as, simultaneously, her young son becomes desperately ill.

© Rosie Powell, Bryony Kimmings, and her dream home-cottage being split apart by her demons…

Wondrously, this is portrayed, as in a fairy story, through a child’s doll’s house of a cottage where she and Tim had hoped to `put down roots’ but which takes on horror proportions. A stream gradually rises to engulf her as her fears and terrors mount presented with fantastic verve through digital projections. Kimmings is seen digging deeper and deeper as the waters rise and rise, drowning her.

Part of the power and impact of Fake It `Til You Make It was Kimmings ability to translate feelings into visual metaphor. So it is here, too.

Emotional states become physicalised not only through the sight of those digital waters rising but later, as Kimmings attempts to recover mental and physical strength, by undergoing a punishing set of weight training exercises – the weights getting heavier and more crushing as her son’s health worsens and her guilt deepens.

© Rosie Powell, Bryony Kimmings: the guilt deepens about her son’s illness as the weights get bigger and her exercise regime more punishing but also strengthening her body, physically, and her mind to overcome the demons…

Part Grimm fairy tale, part autobiographical memoir, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch’s story of survival resonates with so many by its directness as well as its capacity to create legendary images. And its technological guile, you feel, is always used in the service of the artist’s imaginative drive, never just for the sake of showing off the latest technology `toy’.

There is one wonderful moment, for example, when utterly submerged by her demons, Kimmings hears, as though far off, the sound of her own voice, coming back to her; sanity beginning to return, the phoenix arising and her alter ego dances alongside her like a sylph or water sprite.

What could be more appropriate in this season of all seasons celebrating Battersea’s own rebirth after its devastating fire three years ago for Kimmings’ Phoenix story of renewal. No wonder the audience rose as one at the end. As Kimmings observes, the `stream may rise again but it’s okay to feel terror.’

After two years, feeling stronger, she returns to the dream cottage that turned so frightening. As a sign of her strength, she physically carries the cottage to the top of a craggy hill. Another stunning visual metaphor. Bidding that particular vision farewell, she observes as she drives away, `I saw it disappearing round the corner like a film.’

Did it really happen? Was it really just a fiction?

No, it did happen. And she was the author of it. But, for the moment, that particular horror story is over. Until the next time.

And the next time, I’ve no doubt we shall all be there again, too, to bear witness to her next instalment. But my goodness, you’ve got to be tough to turn the shit-pieces of your life into Art. Let’s hope she has the stamina and that next time, the challenge is of a gentler variety, for her and all our sakes!

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch
Conceived, written and performed by Bryony Kimmings

Directed by: Kirsty Housley and Bryony Kimmings
Produced by Philippa Barr

Art Director: David Curtis-Ring
Projection Designer: Will Duke
Projection Design Associate: Hayley Egan
Composer: Tom Parkinson
Sound Designer: Lewis Gibson
Lighting Designer: Johanne Jensen
Creative Associate: Michal Keyamo
Dramaturgical Support: Nina Steiger
Choreographer: Sarah Blanc
Make-up Designer: Guy Common
Design Assistants: Katherine Millar, Alice Winzar, Abel Oberon, Ian Cy, Margarita Glushkova
Costume Assistant: Alan Meggs
BSL Interpreter: Katie Fenwick
Show image: Christa Holka and Alex Innes

Part of BAC’s Phoenix Season.

Co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, Arts Centre Melbourne, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts and supported by Latitude Festival. In association with Avalon. Financially supported by Arts Council England

First performance of I’m a Phoenix, Bitch at Battersea Arts Centre, Oct 3, 2018.
Runs to Oct 20, 2018

Review published on this site, Oct 12, 2018

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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.

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