In 2015, Bryony Kimmings‘ life burnt to the ground when she experienced a post natal breakdown after giving birth to her son, Frank. At only four months old, he was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy, causing clusters of infantile seizures. As Frank’s health deteriorated, Kimmings was at her lowest point. She lost her partner, the idyllic cottage they lived in, and almost lost her son. Her life disintegrated, triggering PTSD. Something she never got warned about in all the pregnancy books.
After a “fuck load of therapy”, Kimmings discovered a technique called rewinding, which encourages reliving the sites of trauma. As an autobiographical performance artist, she has bravely turned this therapy into art. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch chronologically depicts the events of 2015, not only showing her breakdown, but also how she got through those awful times, rising like a phoenix from the depths of despair.
Life wasn’t always like this for Bryony Kimmings. ‘Old Bryony’ wears an ASOS sequin dress and red heels. She is in a happy relationship with a “Greek God” and moves into a peaceful, picturesque cottage in Oxford, which has a stream running outside it. Although there is an ominous warning from the estate agents that the stream is prone to flooding in the winter, things appear to be perfect.
The cottage is impressively reconstructed on stage as a large-scale model, and there are other sets on stage, that are utilised when Kimmings inventively uses the medium of live video as a narrative device. These are streamed live and projected onto the back wall of the stage, as she performs short music videos.
The videos themselves cover a range of genres, and the lyrics are fantastically amusing. Kimmings sings about meeting her boyfriend for the first time, becoming a man trapper, enticing him by cooking a full English breakfast in the kitchen. Another is a surrealist, Bjork-style, hippy music video about pregnancy; a kaftan loving, Instagrammed, “blissed out paradise of motherhood”. The videos are hugely entertaining and the play begins in quite a light-hearted tone.
The mood soon switches when Kimmings gives birth to Frank, and her mental health starts to collapse. The sequin dress and wig are placed into a box. The ‘new Bryony’ we see wears “Sports Direct specials“; plain black workout shorts and a vest top. After bringing Frank home, she becomes paranoid, imagining her son dying in a hundred different ways. A wedge is driven between her and her partner. In a powerful visual metaphor, the model of the idyllic cottage is broken apart, and a tree starts to take root inside it.
Tragically, Kimmings’ nightmares soon become a reality when Frank starts having epileptic seizures. It is harrowing to hear the account of a single mother having to cope with this, let alone someone whose own mental health is breaking down. You don’t have to be a parent to be deeply affected by Kimmings’ ordeal. No parent should have to face a decision whether to administer drugs that have a small possibility of stopping Frank’s seizures, but that have a side effect of causing blindless. It’s an impossible situation that is devastating to imagine. “I hold his four-month-old hand. “Mama’s here, everything’s going to be OK””.
As Kimmings tries to stay strong for Frank, inside, she is falling apart. Her “leaking critical inner monologue” taunts her for not being a good mother, for failing to save her relationship, and for being weak. Voice distortion is used effectively to give this internal self doubt a demon-like voice that is deeply disturbing and quite terrifying.
The entertaining, quirky, music videos now become horror films, and Kimmings has a full breakdown, imagining the house being on fire, or the stream flooding. The idyllic cottage quickly becomes the place of nightmares. Her nightmares are creatively realised through projection in a scene that is traumatic and hard-hitting, and Kimmings is shown drowning. Deafening music accompanies the powerful visuals, creating an overwhelming assault on the senses. It is increasingly difficult to envision how she will pull herself through this.
Having discovered rewinding therapy, Kimmings’ adopts “I am strong” as her mantra, using it to arm herself against her critical internal voice. In an impressive display of physical strength and mental determination, she lifts considerable weights above her head. I already had the utmost admiration for Bryony Kimmings being able to turn traumatic events into a phenomenal single-handed show. The weightlifting left me astounded and awestruck at what an incredible woman she is.
Considering how relatively recent Kimmings’ breakdown was, it takes an immense amount of courage and resolve to return to that place every night. It mustn’t be easy to put something so profoundly personal in front of a large audience. I have a huge amount of respect and appreciation for the fact that she did.
I’m A Phoenix, Bitch is a powerful, hard-hitting, deeply inspiring show which fully deserves the standing ovation it received. I have never been so quick to my feet with applause. Kimmings should certainly ignore that monstrous internal voice, because Frank couldn’t have a better mother.