Before you consider seeing I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, you must brace yourself: this show is truly beautiful, but not easy to watch. The one-woman musical is a blade-cut into the gut, it is horror and it is traumatic, even if at parts it is packed with sophisticated humour. And the reason for this is that everything that happens on the stage, happened in the life of writer and actress Bryony Kimmings.
It is a story of Kimmings herself, once fierce and electric, moving into a picturesque little cottage in Oxfordshire with her partner, Tim. However, 2015 is a year that devastates her, dividing her life into ‘before’ and ‘after’. The couple had a little boy, Frank, and Kimmings fell into post-natal depression. Then, at only a few months old, her son was diagnosed with infantile spasm, that resulted in hundreds of seizures every day, endless medical treatments, and the final wreckage of her relationship with Tim. The audience can watch as her mind falls apart on stage. Then, when the days of absolute madness are over, comes the part of learning to live a life torn to pieces.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, brings the story to stage in an eccentric and striking way, making its effect explosive. Kimmings uses plenty of props, from a detailed doll-house replica of her Oxfordshire cottage to gym equipment, changing her appearance completely multiple times during the play. She also employs all the technical possibilities modern theatre has to offer: on an enormous projector, she brings to life horror-movie like scenes with animation effects, and every song of the play is sung in front of a video-camera that live-streams her face up to the walls. Using her microphone, she can change her voice to play dialogues with a misogynistic male constantly criticising her every move from the inside, and the eighteen-year-old Frank, who sends a message from the future, telling her that everything is going to be alright in the end and there will be time to live again. The songs in the play are brilliantly written, performed in Kimmings’ powerful voice.
However, there is one aspect of the play that makes it flawed at certain points. Kimmings often intentionally over-acts, which as a theatrical technique proved to be distracting in this particular piece. There are constant shifts between an over-dramatised Kimmings and her genuine self, and though the latter is engaging, the former is distancing. While the true trauma survivor in her makes the play gut-wrenching, the overacted moments take away from the true weight of the tragedy she endured and from the show as a whole. These switches slowly disappear for the second half of the performance – by the peak of the trauma and the rest of the show we see only the real Kimmings – but they make the first half of the show inauthentic at parts.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is indescribably courageous. Kimmings relives her trauma every single evening on the stage, exposing her crippling pain and rawest self to the audience, who become one with her, taking on her pain as the story progresses. In the end, there is no redemption of a phoenix rising above, reborn. But there are ashes left behind, and what remains, in the end, is rebuilding a life through the tiring, lengthy, ugly process of healing.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch – Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance One
Runs 10-11, 13-25th August at 17:30
Image: Lily Marriott