As the lights go up on stage, the audience see a barren space, reminiscent of an old attic, with clutter covered by dustsheets. Our protagonist Bryony Kimmings enters like a glorious hurricane, instantly engaging the audience with sparkling wit, a self-deprecating manner and blazing frankness about her mental breakdown. I’m A Phoenix, Bitch, is a one-woman autobiographical show about the arbitrary cruelty of life, the unmatchable ferocity of maternal love and the triumphant resilience of the human spirit. It also manages to be exceptionally funny.
Kimmings takes the spectator on a journey from the greasy hangover breakfast she cooks for her new lover to the dolls’ house recreation of the seemingly cursed house they rent in the years to come. We witness the birth of her son, the emergence of his disabilities and its shattering consequences on her imagined maternal idyll.
Kimmings employs a variety of theatrical techniques to express these experiences ranging from her domestic bliss to overt paranoia, from the anxiety of pregnancy to reflections on her paternal relationship. Using video link projections of live film, old voice clips from her mother, original comedic song and pastiches of classic horror movies, her creativity is boundless. Perhaps, most strikingly of all, Kimmings stands raised upstage behind a gauze, amongst projections of rising flames over a murky lake; we see a waif-like individual in a nightdress flailing and drowning into the depth of depression.
As the plot progresses and Kimmings’ mental illness worsens, we are unable to laugh and instead find ourselves plunged into this fiery lake of despair with her. The bare stage becomes irretrievably changed; the detritus of Kimmings’ life litters the space. Flames crackle and the water submerges her; she floats in the hazy gauze of melancholia, drowning in the rising waters and crumbling to ash in the fire.
As someone who suffers from severe depressive episodes, I am often overtly critical and remain rather detached from art pertaining to mental health. My own experiences of depression naturally stem from totally differing causes from Kimmings’ own; she suffered from post-natal depression whilst I suffer from Bipolar II. However, to this date I have never seen such a starkly honest artistic depiction of mental illness that resonates with me so strongly. Kimmings’ depressive episode is portrayed onstage as an irrepressible natural force. Daily tasks become impossible, her emotions stagnate and her memory of these traumatic events is hazy.
I’m A Phoenix, Bitch is frank and funny, not once straying into the realms of self-pity or gratuity. The piece is as raw and free as it is clinical and careful. In order to discuss mental health with full effectiveness, I believe we must have a total understanding and appreciation of past experience. Kimmings recreates her life with utter bravery and unwavering self-awareness. Her witty openness and logical scrutiny of her emotions, are as empowering and impassioned as moments when she screams and flames spark from the sides of the stage.
The space the spectator saw at the beginning of the stage is not ruined by the fire; it has merely changed. I’m A Phoenix, Bitch helped me to realise through my tears that my depressive episodes have not destroyed me, but moulded who I am. I left the theatre feeling shaken and hollow, but above all uplifted and hopeful. Depression is an overwhelming and uncontrollable feat and yet the strength of the individual to adapt and regrow, is unmatchable. Mental illness may be a raging wildfire, but Kimmings (like you, and like and me) is a phoenix, bitch.