Bryony Kimmings: Performance Art Princess

Written for Exeunt

I am blowing bubbles. Disappointed at not being able to meet with Bryony Kimmings in person, I felt I needed to do some extra prep for our phone interview, to transport myself to a suitable space.  Hence the bubbles. It felt right, an appropriately flamboyant gesture.

Bryony Kimmings is to live art what Kylie is to pop music; she is sparkly, playful – and a consummate professional. Her work is often autobiographical and she has been accused of self indulgence (she has her fair share of detractors), but Kimmings is very serious about her work, and believes in the power of good old fashioned entertainment. “I get quite exhausted thinking about ways people will engage with [my work]. In order to win the crowd, as a performer I want the crowd to love me.” As a live artist, she can get that level of engagement, “in that space you can have an emotional connection.”  It’s the reason she’s not a stand-up comedian. Engagement is a vital part of what she does.

Bryony Kimmings takes over.

This week Kimmings has been given the run of The Junction in Cambridge, the theatre where she is an Associate Artist. Visitors can expect a jamboree of performances, installations and workshops infused with Kimmings’ particular sense of fun. She has taken on a curatorial role for this project and has spent a lot of time “thinking about the user experience; I don’t want it to be ‘Ah is that it?’ I want it to be MAGNIFICENT.” For someone who makes such breezy work, Kimmings seems to put a lot of pressure on herself and has been working incredibly hard to bring this week together.

Anyone who saw Kimmings’ 7 Day Drunk (in which she explored making art during different states of intoxication) knows the lengths she is prepared to go for her work. In some ways the creative process is quite a dark one for her. “It is quite emotional and quite lonely and heavy, I go through that and then make quite a light piece.” Seeing video footage of a tired and wasted Kimmings being encouraged to keep drinking by a watchful team of scientists and doctors was disquieting. Behind all the glitter, there is an iron resolve, a need to push herself.

From soothing installation The Hall of Gratuitous Praise to the English premiere of 7 Day Drunk this week will provide an eclectic programme reflecting Kimmings’ own bold style. In Mega you can become a 9 year old Bryony donning a shell-suit in a site specific audio adventure. Thinking of the younger Kimmings makes me think about her influences. “I went through phases of having art crushes on people. In the beginning I was a Gobsquad girl, Ducky, Kiki and Herb, then I moved on to Taylor Mac…[surrealist photographer] David Lachapelle and stand up comedian Neil Hamburger, his use of overly stretching the audiences’ patience is amazing. But also theatrical music, a couple of theatre based bands? It’s always quite colourful, always quite loud.”

Her style of performance sometimes gets accused of being OTT. That she made her name with a piece called Sex Idiot, in which she openly discussed her sexual history, including STDs, made some regard her as an exhibitionist. It is a tag she is aware of. “That one taught me how far to go, I think I went slightly too far [and] it damaged personal relationships with people…” but her work centres around her own experiences and so it may be one she has to deal with, however unfairly, for a while “I never wanted to tell any lies, I didn’t want to write plays that were made up stories about stuff. I wanted to say ‘this has happened to me, isn’t that interesting’, it’s a bit self important of me which is why I try to make myself look like the fool sometimes.”

Is it therapy? “Me and my boyfriend were talking about this the other day (he’s an electrician) and he said ‘I hate the way that artists use their work as therapy’ a couple of days later he said ‘I’ve changed my mind, at least artists acknowledge they’re quite bad as people and try to make themselves better’. Naturally if you’re trying to explore why you’ve done something, then I’m obviously going to have some kind of therapeutic effect but I’m conscious of the balance of making it primarily for the audience too.”

A “sick Lady Gaga ensemble.”

Just as I feel that I’ve taken the conversation in too sombre a direction she begins telling me about how some of her most serious decisions revolve around whether she should wear flats or heels. Whilst she sees the silliness in this statement she is proud of her fashion obsessions and has a clear belief in the importance of image. Each full length performance begins with a visual mood board and she works closely with her costume designer David to create “sick Lady Gaga” ensembles. As such she is most at home within the stable of queer artists such as Scottee (a guest of honour at her opening extravaganza last night and close friend). She excited tells me about the term ‘light art’ which Scottee has coined and Kimmings believes for her supersedes ‘live art’ “If they’re a ‘light’ artist and glitter and sparkle is important, they understand that they can use costume and lip-sync if it fits in with their more serious intention.”

I wonder if this approach will ever get old? She laughs and then is quiet for a while. “It’s something that I think about a lot. There’s one older live artist who I respect Marcia Farquhar, she’s still extremely glamorous but not trashy, she doesn’t look like  mutton dressed as lamb which I think is something which could happen to me.” Images of too tight leather mini-skirts and bright blue eye shadow hang ominously in the silence. “I do get quite fearful that it’s going to have to evolve, I just imagine that the aesthetic will change as my taste will change.” Still I tell her, as we wrap up our conversation, we wouldn’t want all the glamour to go.

Bryony Kimmings will be taking over The Junction, Cambridge, from 21st – 26th October. For more details visit The Junction website.


Ridiculusmus on Total Football and scrabbling around for national identity

Written for Exeunt

David Woods and Jon Haynes – Ridiculusmus

Two men dressed in suits stood in a suitcase filled with grass. Over the course of 70 minutes they managed to communicate the absurdity and frustration of the stymied Northern Ireland peace process without taking a step out of their turf box. Exuberant, sombre yet defiantly humorous Say Nothing was my first experience of the work of Ridiculusmus. At the time I was a student at the University of Kent, the establishment where David Woods and Jon Haynes also gained their PhDs. With doctorates in, respectively, comedy and performance art, the work of Woods and Haynes has always defied convention. The amalgamation of humour and artistry has helped to make their work incredibly accessible, winning them an affectionate place within the heart of both critics and audiences for the last 18 years.

Nearly two decades of work is an impressive legacy for a still vigorous company of two; many marriages don’t last that long. “Yes but there are three people in our marriage, the third one being the audience!” Down the phone I can hear Woods grinning. “It’s shocking when you think about it… I’ve spent more time with [Haynes] than any other relationship in my life.” Apart from the threesome aspect why has it worked for so long? The answer is refreshingly non-‘luvvie’ “We don’t hang out together (people do find this quite odd)… to keep fresh and excited about meeting we just really meet to work and perform. When we’ve got a show up and running I’ll only really see him a few minutes before the show, it’s driven on the performing.” This sounds like a reasonable statement but I actually do find myself feeling surprised by it; on stage they seem to share a sort of symbiotic understanding of each other which one automatically assumes comes from a long personal friendship.

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Rajni Shah – Glorious

Rajni Shah has been creating and directing original performance work since 1999, with past projects including Hope (2009); Dinner with America (2008); give what you can, take what you need (2008); Altars of us all / speaking to strangers (2008) and Mr Quiver (2005). Her work ranges from large-scale performance installations to small solo interventions in public spaces.Glorious is the third in a trilogy of works and has been commission by SPILL Festival of Performance. It will show at the Barbican before touring nationally.


I end my interview with Rajni Shah by asking a question I thought she would have been bombarded with “What’s your favourite musical, I’m sure everyone’s asked you that!” She is presently surprised “Actually they haven’t! It’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg… I’ve insisted everyone watch it, I think it’s quite brilliant in terms of the visuals and it would seem its a million miles away but it was a really early reference point…” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this is the first time she has encountered such a mainstream question; as an artist Shah is anything but conventional.

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I tasted Sprint, and it’s playful.

Written for

The fourteenth Sprint festival at Camden People’s Theatre kicks off with a taster evening which embodies the festival’s lively and playful essence – and while I’d be reluctant to call it a theme, an abundance of childish delight runs through the work in this opening showcase.

The evening begins with Mamoru Iriguchi’s Projector/Conjector. Iriguchi has a projector on his head, while his eponymous heroine has a TV on hers. Projector/Conjector is a low-fi/high tech love story where boy meets girl in a world of deceptively makeshift illustrations of rockets, ponds, ducks, pieces of coral and even the piercing of a still beating heart. Clad in crumpled forensic whites our performers combine po-faced seriousness and physical prowess (some of the crouches they hold would make a yoga instructor jealous) with a wonderfully silly premise and an odd poignancy as Projector creates his own reality and Conjector captures it.

Greg McLaren

The immensely likeable Francesca Millican-Slater presents I Promise To Swim The Channel (or the story of how I might); a lovely piece of personal passion on stage. With poetic fluidity and a healthy dose of science and history, Millican-Slater takes us through each stage of her training so far, cheerfully highlighting each exhausting obstacle. Armed only with some goose fat, bowls of water and a whistle, this self-deprecating adventurer is as brave as the first channel swimmer Captain Matthew Webb and as witty as one of the most famous, David Walliams. At the end, in a brilliantly simple act of complicity, you can formalise your belief in Millican-Slater by signing an agreement stating you believe that she will achieve her mission – and I’m sure that she will.

Clad in a distinctive Chinese bomber jacket, Greg McLaren (above) combines a palpable sense of bombast with a trembling vulnerability.  Doris Day Can Fuck Off he tells us, or rather, as this is a one-man opera, he sings it to us, in a pleasantly melodic voice. A bundle of contradictions, McLaren’s silly endeavour to sing everything he would usually speak (a task he’s been accomplishing for the last few weeks) seems to have left a rather dark mark on him and his wonderfully funny mash-ups of befuddled traffic wardens and passers-by are tinged with the loneliness of an outsider.

No such darkness infects The Balloon Gardener, a children’s circus act combining tremendous skill with a touch of idiocy. Set against a hip-wiggling soundtrack of 60s TV music and performed with boundless energy, Danny the Wild Balloon-Tamer performs a series of tricks with the tacky flare of a children’s party entertainer. He manipulates brightly coloured latex shapes into a piece of artistic horticulture that won’t fail to put a smile on your face.


Physical prowess and a sense of mindless fun merge into a hundred-words-a-minute with The Honourable Society of Faster Craftswomen’s (right) mega-monologue Patchwork. This spoken word extravaganza has a throbbing punk backing-track and a thrusting energy that leaves the audience breathless. Guileless (but one suspects highly-skilled) animations fill the screen behind the performer. Enthroned on a high-backed chair and clad in a wild-thing suit with requisite ears, this is one cool chick.

This high-octane and razor sharp performance make for an exhausting but exhilarating end to an evening that’s often been punctuated with giggles. Perhaps the most resounding feeling is one of warmth, a sense of welcoming towards all this strange and wonderful work. It is sensation that may well embolden and encourage even those alarmed by the prospect of performance art.

Sprint runs at CPT from the 1st to the 27th March 2011. For a full line-up of events, visit: Camden People’s Theatre

Find the blue elephant; it is leading the way.

Joanna Lumley has now leapt into the Green Party fray after her admirable win for the Gurkhas.  I wish that this formidable opponent would also bring onto the agenda another much smaller, though clearly still important, issue in her repertoire.  Lumley is a patron of The Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell and surely the woman who charmed a dour Prime Minister can raise the unjustly low profile of this imaginative and daring venue.  


Along with The Camden People’s Theatre (whose new show Sprint: adventurous adventures in theatre could be used to describe both of these spaces’ programming choices) The Blue Elephant Theatre is dedicated to a programme of work which crosses art forms in a mixture of performance art, devised pieces, classical texts, dance and experimental theatre.  Bold choices for two such small players.  But where these choices seem to pay off for The Camden People’s Theatre, its specificity raising it’s profile, The Blue Elephant Theatre is a much lesser known animal.  This seems a real pity because although it is quite hard to get to (Camden is very central – even in the theatre it’s always location, location, location) the work put on there is always unique, questioning and innovative.  


I have seen an intriguing production of The Duchess of Malfi, a modernist performance art revue and am looking forward to the Swedish cabaret I am going to see next WednesdayNow although each of the pieces that I have seen have been flawed, the interest ignited from seeing them drives me to see their newest piece (which, by the way, has had a very credible review in Time Out). Along with their dance programme and young people’s theatre/community projects this is clearly a varied assortment of work and as the theatre world wakes up to the potential of the cross pollination of artistic forms The Blue Elephant Theatre is just the space to lead the charge.  


But first we must all find the elephant, and it is honestly well worth the hunt.