In the three short years since she started writing and performing ‒ she was previously a producer ‒ Bryony Kimmings has attracted critical praise for her down-to-earth, whimsical and frequently affecting interpretations of modern life. “I’ve always made work, I’ve always been on the stage. I knew I wanted to do [comedy] but was waiting for a good yarn to come along.”
And come it did ‒ several times. In the bluntly named performance piece Sex Idiot, Bryony retraces her sexual history after an unfortunate STI diagnosis. The resulting show is unapologetic in its portrayal of female sexuality and frequently ridiculous. This was followed by another dig at social expectations in 7 Day Drunk, where she presents the findings of a week-long experiment with alcohol in the tradition of Huxley, Bukowski and Blake. Various academics were wheeled in to do the science bit in a performance piece that otherwise involved little more than vodka, Barbie beakers and audience participation ‒ all led by what the Huffington Post described as a “booze fairy in a jumpsuit”.
Giving feminism a glittery, offbeat makeover
When the camera is off, Kimmings is nothing like her sequinned alter egos. Intense and soberly dressed, her eyes glint with ideas as she barrels headfirst into a lengthy treatise on gender politics. “[The shows] all follow a similar social experiment,” Kimmings says, “and they are feminist; but if you’d asked me if I was a feminist when I’d started making them, I’d have said ‘Fuck off, I don’t even know what that means.’”
Fast forward three years, however, and she is writing a manifesto with Amanda Palmer, the cult singer-songwriter whose subversive tactics have helped raise more than a million dollars on Kickstarter. She shot to internet fame last year when footage of her song ‘Dear Daily Mail’ ‒ a protest at the paper’s coverage of her exposed nipple which culminated in her standing at the keyboard entirely naked ‒ went viral. “It’s called ‘Bryony and Amanda’s Hopeful and Provocative Manifesto for a Peaceful Feminist Loving World’,” says Kimmings, grinning.
While Kimmings certainly isn’t the first to say it, she agrees that, in the popular press, the word feminism has lots of negative associations attached. “Everyone’s trying to rebrand it. If we could use the current traction of feminism in popular media and turn it into something positive, what would be the manifesto of that change?”
“Too bleak and didactic and ranting and isolating”
Kimmings has the luxury of being funded by the Arts Council ‒ this means she has “time to think about the message” and the intricacies of its delivery ‒ rather than rushing to get material ready for a tour. And it’s clear there’s always a message in her madness. “I’ll use humour to make an important political or social point, but it won’t be humour over content,” she says.
A Kimmings show without the laughs would be “too bleak and didactic and ranting and isolating” – its success hinges on a profound understanding of people and a willingness to play the fool in exchange for easy intimacy with the audience. “The main things are to tell the truth as a jester might, to make people laugh so the pill is easier to swallow. And to make us feel we’re in a room where everyone is safe.”
That security comes from Kimmings’ loud, unrelentingly silly personas which, were they not so foul-mouthed, would be more at home on children’s television than on a smoky Soho stage. For adult spectators, the effect is quite liberating ‒ the perfect foil for British social inhibition.
Taking on tween twerking
Her latest show, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, is a social experiment driven less by curiosity than by necessity. Startled by her nine-year-old niece Taylor’s accounts of tween life, Kimmings decided to make her the focus of a new performance piece that would perfectly capture the personality and psychology of a 21st century schoolgirl.
What she discovers during the course of their relationship, she confesses to the audience, is rather different; a complex and sensitive individual who is struggling to make sense of internet porn, pop culture and social pressure. Her first instinct is to gouge Taylor’s eyes out, an act performed on stage with pantomime enthusiasm and a spoon. The duo’s eventual solution, however, is curly-haired Catherine Bennett ‒ not The Guardian columnist, but a nerdy dinosaur-loving, tuna pasta-eating, spectacles-wearing pop star who sings about friendship rather than fucking and spends her days working at a museum.
Bennett’s songs, Kimmings believes, are a cross between Lily Allen, the B52s and the Gorillaz. The show doesn’t end when the curtain drops, either. The Catherine Bennett persona is really trying to make it in the music industry, to make a point about the importance of healthier cultural alternatives. And it appears to be working; Catherine Bennett has her own website, has shot two music videos, and has even appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
The best kids’ show in the world?
“I don’t know if Catherine Bennett is the right role model,” Kimmings confesses to the audience while Taylor is off stage. “She’s a bit weird.” Nonetheless, she’s a significant other, taking on an industry notorious for its emphasis on sexualisation. When Bryony and Taylor don their armour and run around the stage with assault rifles, strobe lights and loud rock music blaring out of the speakers, the room fills with possibility. They are taking on the world and this might just work. Everyone is rooting for them. It’s funny ‒ and it’s important.
Originally, their goals were lofty but straightforward: “A million hits on YouTube, an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, three celebrity friends and a ridiculous capitalist buy-out offer that we then turned down.”
But the success of Role Model has attracted several unexpected opportunities more in line with Bryony and Taylor’s social ambitions ‒ both CBBC (the BBC children’s channel) and Macmillan books have asked her to write a treatment.
“With a book or TV programme, suddenly you’re reaching way more than a million hits on YouTube, and the right people, rather than it being shared between adults. I mean, if they said, ‘We like it but can you make her less smart or put her in a bikini?’ then we’d say, ‘Piss off, No!’ But we’ve written what I think is the best kids’ show in the world – so we’ll see.”
bryonykimmings.com. Photography: Lee Grubb.