Startlingly personal yet utterly relatable, Thirsty by the Paper Birds theatre company is a brutal representation of the truth of binge drinking culture. The play has been touring around the UK after winning a number of awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with many sell out performances and has tour dates booked up until 2nd April 2012. One of the latest performances came to the cultural ground of Birmingham’s mac on Thursday last week.
Combining drunken tales from hotlines and blogs, Thirsty attempts to determine not only why we drink, but also the effect of drinking on us. However, the tale is not a particularly didactic one extolling the virtues of a sober lifestyle. Instead, through their research techniques, writers Kylie Walsh and Jemma McDonnell have found the hilarious highs and lows of drinking, portraying the highs as honestly as the lows. The stage setting reflected the Paper Birds’ research into their field, and in the after show discussion they explained their choices. The staging involved a club bathroom being put in front of the audience: three toilet cubicles with removable toilets on a tiled floor lined with half full glasses. What was created was a type of documentary theatre, a place where late night secrets can be revealed; therefore, the club bathroom is the only suitable setting, with its communal but private areas.
The play itself is a confused tale between the subject of the plot, ‘She’, an 18 year old first year at university, and the narrators of the story. We are told that the narrators are the writers of the play, Walsh and McDonnell, who have their own story: the story of how they devised the play and of their own relationships with alcohol. Their story runs deeply through the play and the portrayal of their friendship, brought together by university but pulled apart after graduation, is painfully applicable. Missed trains and phone calls resulting in empty voicemail messages acted out on the stage brought the audience near to tears, but within seconds the pair are reunited on a night out, clinging to each other and stumbling over the all too familiar phrases ‘You’re so great, I love you so much’ and the audience are roaring with laughter. These emotional turns were helped by Shane Durrant, who provided live background music to the action on stage. Sitting in his own separate cubical with a ukulele, two computers and a keyboard, Durrant was adept at providing the perfect soundtrack with a comic undertone.
The writers’ story is used to create a rapport between them and the audience, resulting in an atmosphere of absolute belief created by plain honesty. The play needs this believability to back up the story of ‘She’, the real focus of the narrative, the one story they repeatedly emphasise that they didn’t want to tell. This character has no actor to play her, only a pair of red shoes which are moved by Walsh and McDonnell on stage. The plot is chaotic, with the narrators arguing with what she does, how she feels. She is introduced to us as ‘18 and she’s on a night out in Fresher’s Week and she’s feeling great!’, yet later this description is edited multiple times. However, the distance created between ‘She’ and the audience and narrators encourages us to properly discern the situation as it unfolds onstage. After going home with a man she met that night, then passing out, was she raped? Was it her fault or his? The Paper Birds don’t attempt to provide any answers to these questions, but attempt to show the story as honestly and plainly as it was told to them and to make their audiences think about the questions themselves.
The Paper Birds have chosen a controversial topic in Thirsty, one which is relevant to everyone, but they manage to touch upon painful issues with an objective eye. The group know exactly how to play with their audience, allowing a serious topic to be a comedy, but also allowing the audience room to determine their own opinions. Overall, a fantastically emotional play, bringing frightening problems of drinking culture to the fore.
Words by Eleanor Campbell