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Review: I'm a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings

In the hands of a lesser artist, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch could have been a disaster. Despite positive trends to increase awareness and understanding, the stigma of mental illness still pervades through society. Inviting viewers to watch the depiction of a mental breakdown live on stage was a huge challenge - particularly in a world where people desperately seek relief from the perpetual anxiety attack known as ‘The News’.  However, rest assured, it’s a challenge that Kimmings rises both to and above, like the proverbial phoenix from her title.

Kimmings takes us on a full journey starting with the first encounter with her (now ex) partner. An ironic pop song sung in dreamy, lilting style sees her seductively purr how she will win him over with a cooked breakfast and - failing that – a jagged trap lain in the back garden. Both effective in their own way. Her manic energy acts as a mocking exaggeration of men’s perception of emotional women as crazed harpies looking to ensnare them with their wiles. As the relationship progresses, they find themselves in love with a picturesque new home and baby on the way - they are living the dream.

Fast forward to 2015 where Kimmings hit crisis point. Facing the loss of her relationship, home and newborn baby’s health, she was hit by a wave of post-natal depression which threatened to engulf her. This is demonstrated by Will Duke’s meticulous video designs where eerie projections show her desperately trying to claw her way out of the ground, drowning underwater and surrounded by choking flames, all within a short space of time. Three striking visuals that are expertly used to display what an episode of depression can feel like for those who cannot imagine it. Heavy? Of course. But you’re never allowed to wallow for too long. Kimmings injects humour and wit throughout her performance to give you welcome moments to breathe through the trauma.

The trauma takes place at a desolate house in the depths of the Oxfordshire countryside. If this sounds like a line taken from an MR James novel, the reference is not without merit. As Kimmings finds herself alone and struggling to come to terms with her son’s neurological condition, she frantically stumbles through the dark woods surrounding her home. The audience are then seized from her monologue and plunged directly into a horror film, thanks to David Curtis Rigg’s atmospheric set design.

The variety of tools used to tell Kimmings’ story are impressive in their diversity - from voiceovers from the artist’s mother to tiny figurines in a replica of the Oxfordshire home to live close-up video footage, there is never a moment where the audience is not fully engaged with Kimmings’ story. This is a slick, honed piece of theatre where care and precision have been taken to ensure the various methods never feel gimmicky but integral to the experience.

Those familiar with Kimmings’ other works will be aware that she is a politicised, feminist performer. However, while she is only too aware of the currents of misogyny, she also reveals how she has fallen victim to it. This is an important reminder that awareness of a problem does not make us immune to it. Her unwelcome inner monologue is delivered by a vicious, middle-aged, heterosexual man whose sneering voice seeks to drag her down further, even when at her lowest possible point – the hospital bed of her extremely ill son. She tries to fight back but the voice is persistent, and it takes the summoning of all her strength to banish it.

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is an intense, harrowing piece of work but I came out of it feeling not overwhelmed but awed and inspired. As Kimmings is keen to reassure the audience at the start of the show, this is a story of her trauma, yes, but also her subsequent recovery. The recovery may not be complete but to create a unique, ground breaking whirlwind of a show where she relives her trauma night after night displays an exceptional strength in a mind once broken. Shows like this are rare and, echoing the themes of the show, Kimmings’ story will stick in your mind long after you leave the theatre.

I'm a Phoenix, Bitch is at Battersea Arts Centre until March 9th.

For tickets and info, head to: bac.org.uk