Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is a glimmering, harrowing, firework display of a show, and is easily among the best performances at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. To call it a one-woman show feels almost derogatory given its massive scale; it is better understood as an engrossing visual representation of what it’s like to fall apart mentally, with some poignant notes about modern womanhood along the way. At the cliff’s edge of her descent into mental crisis, Bryony Kimmings confesses “I can’t tell you what it felt like, but I will show you”, and boy does she show us.
A glimmering, harrowing, firework display of a show
There are many shows at this year’s Fringe aiming to make you understand people going through a mental breakdown. This one succeeds. Its emotional intensity can make you worry about the psychological toll that repeated performances must take on Kimmings, but as she assures us in the opening of her performance, her expertly written, skilfully performed meander through the last two years of her life constitutes a kind of personal therapy. She plunges you into the darkest devastating depths of the human experience, swirls you about, and then pulls you half-way back out, moved with empathy.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is a splendidly aesthetic performance that takes full advantage of its medium – the theatre. This sensorily overwhelming portrayal of mental illness garners an emotional response that literature, music, or film on their own likely couldn’t. The stage starts as the site of various hilarious movie pastiches and songs before slowly transforming into the site of its protagonists’ trauma: a creepy, distorted cottage straight out of a fantasy novel. Here, Kimmings uses Will Duke’s striking projections and David Curtis-Ring’s nightmarish set-pieces to push our emotions beyond the limit of where her words can bring them. Her performance brings the usual cliche of ‘feeling like you’re drowning’ to new heights; we feel powerless as she runs, lost and bloodied, through a psychedelic forest of holographic trees, or suffocates on a stage slowly filling with projected water. The show is a visual and aural spectacle – it assaults the senses and devastates the heart in equal measure.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is as much about mental health as it is about womanhood. It demands that you acknowledge the silent battles that women are so often fighting before the blind gaze of the men that surround them. Armed with various characters, wigs, and backdrops, Kimmings gives us an entertaining yet mournful look at who she used to be, and the contrived feminine fronts that she’d present to those around her. Fittingly, she voices her own judgemental internal monologue as a middle-aged man, who goes from being a comedic presence to a monstrous source of intrusive thoughts as the show progresses. At times, the performance feels reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in its modern, self-aware complication of the archetypal female characters we’re used to seeing on the stage and the screen.
Bryony Kimmings’ vulnerable sobbing as her equally teary audience rose to a standing ovation shows that her performance isn’t just about her recovery – it is her recovery. She bares herself on the stage, and what we see is an incredibly complex, broken, yet hopeful picture. Do yourself a favour and see this show.