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Review: I'm a Phoenix, Bitch (Battersea Arts Centre)

Bryony Kimmings returns to Battersea Arts Centre with her new show about trauma

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Bryony Kimmings
(© © Rosie Powel)

As performance artist and theatremaker Bryony Kimmings herself confesses at the top of I'm a Phoenix, Bitch, she doesn't exactly deal in cheery material. A speedy recap of her previous autobiographical work reveals a common theme, she says: "lots and lots of crying". But Kimmings really outdoes herself in terms of emotionally challenging topics in this ambitious new solo piece, a show that tells the story of her experience of post-natal depression following the birth of her son Frank, his falling dangerously ill with a rare neurological condition at the age of four months, and the subsequent collapse of her relationship with Frank's father and her own near total emotional breakdown.

The material may not be cheerful, but Kimmings' on stage persona, as well as the tightly written and edited script, are full of a life-affirming humour that makes I'm a Phoenix a real joy to watch. Kimmings' pain is there all right, there for all to see, and at moments the rawness of her performance makes you wonder about the emotional toll that repeatedly recounting this past trauma in front of an audience might take. But then you think back to an assurance Kimmings offers us at the start of the show: it's in the telling of these stories, to herself and now to us, that she is able to process them and move on. By the end of I'm a Phoenix you're left in no doubt: Kimmings is a f**king pro.

There's a mawkish pleasure to be had in theatre that puts its audience through the emotional wringer and leaves it at that, but Kimmings and her co-director, Kirsty Housley, do so much more here. By presenting us with a range of voices – including her own inner monologue, which takes the form of a nasty, male, middle-aged misogynist – and a series of pitch-perfect songs performed by outlandish alter-egos, Kimmings provides a layer of metanarrative that allows the show to comment on itself. I'm a Phoenix manages to be not just about a woman making art, but about women's stories in art more broadly, and the way we watch them. If that sounds offputtingly high-falutin', don't worry, it's nothing of the sort – Kimmings does all this with the lightest of touches and a huge helping of humour.

The production design – unusually expansive for a one-person show – just adds to the richness of the theatrical experience. Art director David Curtis-Ring and projection designer Will Duke play with scale to conjure up different versions of what Kimmings' therapist refers to as the "site of [her] trauma", the isolated Oxfordshire cottage where she lived with Frank and his father. The effect is surprising, unsettling and spectacular – part of the season celebrating the reopening of the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre, I'm a Phoenix really makes the most of this raw and beautiful space.

There's a disconnect, however, between the visual and the emotional at the point when the show is at its most theatrically ambitious. There's undoubted power in Kimmings' wordless expression of the depths of her trauma but given that it's her ability to articulate her experiences verbally that make Kimmings such a formidable artist, after its initial punch to the gut this section feels distancing and curiously impotent.

But this is a small criticism of an otherwise extremely impressive and affecting piece. It's rare to see work by women – let alone a woman making a solo show – presented on such an ambitious scale, with such high production values and in such grand surroundings. More of this please.

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