UK performance artist Bryony Kimmings is presenting two shows at either end of the city’s main Fringe drag: Sex Idiot in the Garden of Unearthly Delights, an East End institution since 2000, and Fake It Till You Make It at the Royal Croquet Club which, in only its second year, comfortably feels like a fixture of the city’s unique summer festival architecture.
Fake It Till You Make It is, however, not, or at least not only, Kimmings’ show. Its locus is her partner Tim Grayburn, a non-artist who has suffered from clinical depression since his mid-twenties. As a reluctant performer, Kimmings tells us, he only agreed to appear onstage if he did not have to look audience members in the eye. This condition is upheld for the most of the show, Grayburn’s head submerged beneath a succession of masks — a billowy white haze, a giant paper bag with concave eyes and frown, an eerie, nest-like tangle of grey tubes — which also simply and effectively signify Grayburn’s cognitive darkness and disarray.
Kimmings’ work is usually predicated on the puncturing of a socially harmful taboo or silence through a process of autobiographical demystification. Here the theme is male depression. The statistics are grim — one in eight men will experience depression in their lives and men account for 80 per cent of the 2,200 suicides that happen each year in Australia — but Fake It Till You Make It is anything but.
The loose narrative pivots around audio excerpts from an interview of Grayburn that Kimmings conducted in their London home. Grayburn’s voice cracks as he frankly lays out the stages of his illness and diagnosis, from his partner’s discovery of antidepressants in his backpack to shattering breakdowns at the houses of family members and in public, but Kimmings’ irreverence acts as a constant allaying force. It isn’t that she provides rescue — her role, in keeping with much of her performance practice, feels more like that of a provocateur than a saviour — but that her confident, dynamic stagecraft effectively offsets Grayburn’s heart-rending personal narrative. Unsurprisingly, their chemistry is impeccable and palpable.
Kimmings tells us that the couple regard Grayburn’s depression as a shared challenge; she often uses collective pronouns when talking about it. The work feels, too, like a genuine collaboration, the pair performing songs (her singing, him playing guitar), dancing together and, when the world proves overwhelming, retreating to the safety of a pavilion tent they erect together (the set, elegantly lit by Nao Nagai, is by Amelia Hankin). There is an expected amount of irony in all this but the humour, even — perhaps especially –when at its most self-effacing, is part of the point, reframing mental illness as workaday and surmountable, thus impugning the culture of silence which continues to deter men from seeking help or even discussing it.
Kimmings says near the beginning of the show that anger is a major driver of her work. Fake It Till You Make It is, though, less a call to arms than a call for common sense. It should, while in Australia, find its place alongside the ABC’s Mental Health Week and Dr Brian Ironwood as a key recent intervention in the current, growing national conversation around depression and anxiety in men. That it is also joyful, theatrically rich and profoundly moving marks it out as an undoubted highlight of this year’s festival season.
Four and a half stars.
Sex Idiot is, in a sense, a prequel to Fake It Till You Make It in which Kimmings retraces the sexual adventurism of her pre-monogamy days via a quest to uncover the source of a sexually transmitted infection. On the diagnosis, Kimmings set out to contact each of her former lovers and one night stands (a total of 35 emails, she tells us, 14 Facebook messages, and seven texts). Some never replied to her missives, some couldn’t remember who she was, and others were, to put it mildly, nonplussed to hear from her. A blazing parade of unsparingly confessional song, poetry, dance and stand up, Sex Idiot is both an exorcism of, and a long thank you note to, the men who responded.
Kimmings, unexpectedly a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, opens the work on an ornithological note, donning an extravagantly plumaged hat and performing a bizarre courtship display. Both birds and humans, she explains, show off in order to get shagged. The hat is cast aside, the first of many abandoned articles of costume which soon begin to clutter the stage, and Kimmings launches into a monologue about her STI test with a plastic speculum jammed in her mouth.
Among the show’s most memorable moments are two songs; in one which borrows the tune and famous cue card-shedding video of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, Kimmings hilariously reels off dozens of synonyms for the female sexual organ, while in another she accompanies herself on a battered old Yamaha keyboard as she unleashes a ferociously violent tirade about being cheated on.
As each sexual partner is crossed off her list, Kimmings ritualistically adds some symbolic object — a condom, a bouquet of broken flowers — to a large bowl. One of the last objects to go in is a moustache fashioned from pubic hair provided by the audience (it’s OK — participation is optional and compensated for with whiskey).
It’s clear that, despite the party-like atmosphere, Kimmings has a serious point to make about the stigmatisation of female sexuality. She is unapologetic about her sexual history but never self-righteous, owning up to those moments in her past when she feels she mistreated her partners or was a difficult person to be with. Funny, flawed and fearless, Kimmings, sex idiot, succeeds in embracing all of it: sex and love, longing and disappointment, rage and regret, and in the process gives a ludicrous, touching and, above all, utterly compelling account of female sexuality today.
On the same night I cut off a swatch of pubic hair and gave it to Bryony Kimmings to wear on her face, I was sat on and sung at by a 6 foot 8 inch clown from Atlanta.
Puddles (pictured above) a sad, Pierrot-like figure in whiteface and bedecked with a gold crown emblazoned with the letter P, is performing in Puddles Pity Party, a kind of lugubrious rock cabaret, at La Cascadeur in the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Puddles (real name Michael Geier) achieved prominence in 2013 for a characteristically operatic cover of Lorde’s Royals; it went viral and, naturally, is the centerpiece of the show.
Puddles’ repertoire, otherwise, leans heavily on classic pop and well-worn karaoke favourites: Yesterday, I Will Always Love You, Hallelujah. Sprinkled throughout are obscure melancholic gems, such as Flat Duo Jets’ Lonely Guy, and surprising renditions of hits like Dancing Queen, ABBA’s Euro disco ode to teenage abandon reimagined as a luxuriant torch song. Most of the songs are illustrated by projections of moody, vintage film footage and, for more than one, Puddles pulls an audience member onto the stage to sing with him, the clown photographing the hapless participant with a Polaroid as they gamely muddle their way through the lyrics that appear on the screen.
There’s not much shtick, and little in the way of traditional clowning, but audience interaction is central to the show. Nobody is safe, Puddles frequently and alarmingly clambering up the bleachers to haul down some quivering soul from a dark corner. Those who are not required to put their pipes to the test are sat down on a chair for an impromptu birthday celebration, Puddles nonchalantly affixing a party hat to their head and a balloon on a string to their clothes as he serenades them with Happy Birthday before unceremoniously banishing them from the stage. Puddles desires and is capable of displaying affection towards others but, like a sociopath or one of the brokenhearted troubadours to which he is drawn, resists or misunderstands all attempts in kind. It’s an edgy and captivating dynamic, seamlessly held.
Throughout the show, Puddles’ rich, soaring baritone is unfailingly impressive. The audience remains enraptured until the end and as we file out into the warm February air I think of the words to an old Sinatra song that could have easily made it into the show: ‘I can’t win, but here I am/More than glad to be unhappy.’