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

Towards the start of this raw and exposing autobiographical show, an inner voice tells Bryony Kimmings she isn’t funny any more. It’s one of a string of needling criticisms from a voice she characterises as a white, middle-class, middle-aged, cis-gendered man forever out to undermine her. The charge of losing her sense of humour seems especially pointed – and for two reasons.

The first is that a sense of humour, the ability to laugh at herself, is the quality that has always relieved Kimmings from the charge of narcissism. As a kind of theatrical self-portraitist, she has made a career from looking at her own life, whether that be a run-down of her sexual partners in Sex Idiot or her relationship with a man who hid his depression in Fake It ’Til You Make It. There’s no question she finds herself fascinating, but her sense of the ridiculousness has always allowed an audience in too.

To lose her sense of humour could be to lose her audience. Also at stake is her very sanity. Humour depends on perspective, the ability to juxtapose two contradictory ideas. When you lose that, you risk losing your grip on reality. In conditions of stress, all you can see is the horror, with no prospect of escape.

Although Kimmings does performance art with the panache of a stand-up comedian – especially so in the big space of Pleasance One – I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is about a true-life sequence of events during which she lost all perspective. Now her sense of humour has returned, she is able to self-mockingly present her story in the manner of a gothic film-noir, the young mother trapped in a spider-ridden cottage in a lonely landscape where the waters are rising…

The reality, however, was far from amusing: the happy birth of her son, followed by the baby’s debilitating sequence of seizures, the dissolution of her marriage and a mental breakdown. You feel it must be wounding for her to return each night to such harrowing memories. It’s a punishing, brutal show, even as it is visually imaginative and, yes, frequently funny. It’s only her insistence that there’s a happy ending that lets us live vicariously through this darkest of periods.

Bryony Kimmings: I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, Pleasance Courtyard, 31 Jul – 25 Aug (not 12), 5.30pm

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