I'm a Phoenix, Bitch review

4 out of 5 stars
I'm a Phoenix, Bitch Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Victor Frankowski
I'm a Phoenix, Bitch Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Victor Frankowski

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Bryony Kimmings rises from the ashes in this unusual Sydney Festival musical

How do you survive when your life falls apart – when it exceeds the worst you could imagine and just gets darker?

Well, ideally therapy. And a lot of it.

But if you’re performance artist Bryony Kimmings – or any kind of creator – you might also find the therapeutic benefit of putting your trauma into art. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is a performance art musical that excavates, explores and revisualises the worst year in Kimmings’ life.

In that year, Kimmings experienced post-natal psychosis; this is more common than we know. Her relationship ended, she nearly lost her son to illness, and her new home in a Oxfordshire cottage went from sweet to sinister. As the show progresses, Kimmings is peeling back the layers of conventional public conversation to unearth the unspoken and unshown – women’s health, in general; the body horror of pregnancy; the stigma associated with mental illness; even the performative aspects of early romance. 

Part therapy technique for Kimming’s PTSD, part theatrical device, we revisit different trauma sites and memories like they’re happening in a film (each scene features live camera feed projected onstage). We see Kimmings and her ex-partner meet, find a home and become pregnant. Each of these moments are explored via a witty, short musical number, heavy on both self- and social-deprecation. 

And then we see it all fall apart.

It’s an extraordinary work that begins as conversational – Kimmings assures us that she’s OK and will be OK as she performs the show – and moves into the highly theatrical, mixing live film and projections to conjure nightmares out of shadows. Directed by Kimmings and Kirsty Housley, there’s an assured, clear trajectory for the piece: things will get worse, and worse, and worse, but we will find our way back to the light together.

Kimmings is an experienced and accomplished performer, and it’s a pleasure to spend this time with her, even as it becomes almost unbearably sad. She knows that to tell a story so dark, there must also be lightness, and she gives the audience reprieves in the form of gentle jokes and asides. She also takes care of us – promising that no one will be rushed from the theatre after the show, that it’s okay to sit with your feelings before you leave. It’s both generous and necessary; on this night, a stream of audience members filed out of the Drama Theatre still wiping tears from their cheeks. You can hear people sob around you. Everyone – not just Kimmings – is excavating something during this show.

At one moment, deep in despair and struggling without a support system, Kimmings says that she wanted a coven of women around her, and it’s like lightning: such a simple statement hits so hard. It’s a brief and aching acknowledgement of the quiet knots of women who hold each other up; the support we provide for each other because there are never enough structures in place to truly help, because doctors rarely believe in women’s pain, because the world is designed to keep it all out of sight. When Kimmings repeats her mantra, “I am strong,” lifting progressively heavier weights as her son clings to life and so does she, we can see it. We can even, perhaps, believe it about ourselves.

You can score same-day tickets to Sydney Festival shows via Tix for Next to Nix on the TodayTix app for just $31.


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