I’m a Phoenix, Bitch
Battersea Arts Centre, Arts Centre Melbourne and Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
Anyone who has attended previous performances by Bryony Kimmings will be aware her work is based upon her life experiences and often features lots of crying. Even so, the raw emotional impact of I’m a Phoenix, Bitch may come as a shock.
In 2015, things were going well for Bryony Kimmings. She and her partner had rented a picturesque cottage in Oxford and Kimmings became pregnant. However, the estate agent’s contractual caution that the trickle of a stream near the cottage was prone to flood was a warning of things turning sour. Frank, Kimmings’s son, is born with a rare form of infant epilepsy and is subject to clusters of seizures. At her lowest emotional point, Kimmings’s relationship disintegrates and she returns home to find the stream has indeed flooded and the cottage become a place of horror. The stress of the situation has a detrimental impact upon Kimmings’s relationship and mental health and soon she is a broken single mum, homeless, suffering from PTSD and anxiety and facing agonising choices.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, explains Kimmings, utilises a form of therapy called ‘Re-winding’. The idea is to replay traumatic events as if they were a film, to acquire a degree of emotional distance, and even change around proceedings to achieve closure. Kirsty Housley, who co-directs with Kimmings, takes this technique literally. Much of the play is staged in the manner of a gothic melodrama with booming over-dramatic music, crashing noises and mysterious happenings. Kimmings appears in a variety of roles as if she has stepped out of an old movie—an aged spinster spying through curtains or a dangerous obsessive. A model of a cottage, filmed in close-up and projected onto a screen, achieves massive scale.
Mental illness is subjective, which makes it difficult to assess in an objective manner and hinders sympathy among observers who struggle to relate. The decision of Kimmings, upon hearing her son’s diagnosis, to bury his clothes is so irrational it can only be captured in a delirious nightmarish sequence. Kimmings’s mental confusion is apparent as she struggles against projected images sending her plummeting into the earth; it might be hard to understand how she could take such action but there is no denying the torment she is enduring.
Possibly cautious of the emotional upheaval, Kimmings seems reluctant to start the play. She opens in her ‘old’ cheerful persona wearing a sequinned dress and Theresa May style shoes giving a recap of her life and career. Even at this early point in the play, however, doubt torments Kimmings who repeatedly slips into a male ‘inner voice’ that offers ongoing criticism of her efforts.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch has too much variety to become a dry monologue. The mood constantly shifts from dark to comedic with Kimmings breaking into Tom Parkinson’s parody songs. However, nothing can insulate the audience from the raw emotional intensity of Kimmings revealing the choices she faced when getting medical treatment for Frank. In a broken voice, Kimmings recalls having to formally consent for Frank to be treated with drugs she is told may reduce his seizures but will also have a detrimental impact on his health in other ways. Kimmings does not seem tormented at this stage but rather exhausted—It is a stark situation of simply having no choice.
With such an emotional overload, it is small wonder at one point in the play Kimmings staggers around the stage like a zombie wearing a dressing gown. Her life-affirming mantras, recited when exercising, ring hollow in such a bleak situation.
Despite the confrontational title, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is far from a triumphant play. It is a deeply personal and harrowing account of someone struggling through the worst that life can offer.
Reviewer: David Cunningham