“I just think I grew up,” says Bryony Kimmings, with a girlish shrug. We’re talking about how her art has changed since she first came to Edinburgh six years ago, how it switched from scatterbrained self-regard to passionate, clear-sighted and, yes, fun-filled campaigning. She’s 34 now, and five months pregnant with her first child, a boy – hence what comes next. She leans into my dictaphone: “I’m going for a wee now.”
Back in 2009, Bryony Kimmings was Queen of the Overshare. Her debut Sex Idiot was an account of her chlamydia diagnosis. For 7 Day Drunk she spent an entire week pissed to explore the link between art and alcohol. Neither show did much for me. They didn’t say much, though they did say it with aplomb: outré costumes, ramshackle dottiness and no shame whatsoever. Content was elevated by sheer force of personality, but I wanted sincerity as well as stupidity. I wanted something that mattered.
Then came Catherine Bennett, the fictional popstar Kimmings invented with her nine-year-old niece, Taylor: a singer-songwriter-palaeontologist with curly hair and glasses, a million miles from Rihanna, Katy Perry and co. Kimmings toured schools with Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, hoping to provide a wholesome alternative to sexualised pop icons. Suddenly, it mattered: “I gave a shit about it.”
“When I stopped looking at myself and going, 'Oh, it’s so difficult being me.' As soon as I allowed myself to become furious, to become passionate on someone else’s behalf, that was when it meant something.”
So was born Bryony Kimmings Mark II, Art Activist. “I’m obsessed with massive issues now. People might not agree. They might see the same bird talking about the same old taboos, but I genuinely think it’s become the opposite. I don’t give a fuck about my own agenda now. It’s like: ‘Ok, who needs help?’”
The answer lay close to home. Her partner Tim Grayburn, father to her bump, has chronic depression. Six months into their relationship, Kimmings found anti-depressants in his backpack.
“He hadn’t mentioned it; hadn’t presented any symptoms that I could see. I found these tablets and I was like, ‘I know what these are – what the fuck?’ It didn’t compute. I was thinking: ‘He’s obviously not mentally ill because he’s totally normal. He doesn’t seem like a weak man.’ How dare I have even thought that?”
Grayburn had always kept his depression private – even from some of his family. “The thing that made me angry, in the same way that the sexualisation of young girls made me angry, was Tim’s not being able to talk about his emotions as a man; the diabolical stress that put on his brain and the strain that puts on him as a human being. That made me fucking angry.”
A year later, they agreed to make a show about it. “I reckon people need to hear this story,” she told him, “and I happen to tell stories for a living.” He left his job in advertising to give it a go and they put their relationship, and his condition, onstage in Fake It ‘Til You Make It.
Doing so has taken real honesty – sometimes uncomfortably so. In one rehearsal they realised that their first reactions were identical: “I was like, 'I could quickly dump him and find someone who isn’t mentally ill'. He thought, 'I could quickly get rid of her and keep my secret again'.” Grayburn hadn’t performed before and so wanted to feel protected somehow, hidden. He wears masks throughout – clouds and tangled knots obscure his face. It’s like he’s not really there, not in any real way.
Grayburn’s tall and handsome, with cheekbones so defined you’ll find them in the Oxford English Dictionary. “He looks like a typical Great White Male,” says Kimmings. “It’s really telling how we look at him: he’s hasn’t got problems. He looks like Eddie Redmayne. He could walk into any job, do whatever he wants. He’s a bloke. He’s young. He’s middle-class. To see that guy whimpering about how sometimes he can’t stop thinking about the fact that sometimes he just wants to be hanging by the throat – that skews every single stereotypical idea we have about those men and that illness.”
In addition to Fake It she’s writing a musical about cancer for Complicité and, after a huge Royal Court-led commission, she’s working with 70-odd young men from working class backgrounds all around the country—“boys the Evening Standard paint as thugs”—in a piece about social revolution. “They leave the workshops and they’re like, ‘I’m going to change the fucking world'. They become like the Hulk.”
This is a far cry from her twenties, working in arts management and “fucking around at the weekend in working men’s clubs". One of her shows was “a spoof E-News” called Celebrityville, a live soap opera about fake celebs. Mostly, it was an excuse for a party. “It was all for shits and giggles. I wasn’t really an artist at all.”
It’s a word she mocks, ‘artist.’ 7 Day Drunk included a jaunty, self-satirising song: “I’m an ar-tist, a fucking ar-tist,” sung with Ting Tings-style swagger. “I still think it’s a bit cunty, if I’m honest. If people are like, ‘What do you do?’ I’m never like,”—she puts on an Essexy lisp—“Oh, I’m an artist, babes.” Often she’ll plump for comedian instead. “It’s just easier.”
This is one of Kimmings’ greatest assets. She cuts through art’s bullshit – all its loftiness and academia. Her work is down with pop culture and happy to make a proverbial tit of itself. “It has to be entertaining. It has to be accessible and it can never be up its own arse.”
Kimmings is avant garde, for sure, but her pop sensibility makes her fit for the mainstream. She talks, at various points of aspiring to be “the British Lena Dunham,” “the female Russell Brand,” and “an artist household name, like Grayson Perry.”
“The aim is to increase my audience. Why would I make a piece of work for the Cambridge Junction, if I can make work for the Royal Court or the BBC or 20th Century Fox. If it’s the same voice, if it still has political and artistic integrity, why would I stop? There’s no limit to it.” Like I said, she’s grown up.