One act, two actresses, three toilet cubicles and a nation of women thirsty for their next sip of a legal high: alcohol. Thirsty is an original play written and produced by the theatre company ‘The Paper Birds’ who are based in Leeds. The Birds seek to prioritise the stories of women which are “observationally and conversationally urgent”. Thirsty makes no exception to this objective as it contemplates our binge drinking nation of women through a collage of drinking stories patched together quite literally from the drunken scrawlings on the walls of the Ladies loo on stage. These are stories collected from a blog, a questionnaire and a drunken hotline that the company set up a year ago as a means to hear our stories about drinking. The play is brought to life by actresses Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh, who use their real names throughout in order to blend in their own drinking experiences, amounting in a cocktail of alcohol fuelled tales.
Initial reactions to the opening of the performance were raised eyebrows as Beyonce’s Single Ladies was blasted overhead and out of two of the cubicles burst Kylie and Jemma; kitted out in the typical hen-do getup of license plates, veils and devil horns to boot. The brazenly drunken duo smash upon the audience in a tidal wave of boozey slurrings asking for phone numbers and daring each other to do outrageous acts whilst flashing various body parts as they wove in amongst the starkly sober crowd. Thankfully this gaudy display was shorted lived and was there purely to highlight that they had no intention of telling that ‘type’ of story when they decided to approach this topic. More over they wanted to tell the story of the over worked mum who looks forward to a large glass of wine at the end of a hard day of work when the kids are tucked up in bed, or the married couple of 30 years who like to merrily drain a bottle together over a romantic dinner. Yet despite their best efforts they could not ignore a girl who kept leaving them messages, though her story was not one they had wanted to tell. She is between 18 and 23, she drinks because she is allowed, because it she doesn’t really know who she is yet. The reasons for drinking vary and are repeated throughout from beginning to end, they are rationalised, said because I can, I am allowed, because it makes me feel more confident, fun, attractive, and more sociable.
The set was utilised beautifully, it was simplistic and makeshift. With three toilet cubicles, a chequered black and white tiled floor with an assortment of glasses framing the stage, all filled with water. Glasses of water which Jemma and Kylie sip at, glug , shot and down. By the last drink they are rolling and slipping in a messy inebriated dance and literally pouring water all over themselves as the British flag they were proudly waving whilst sober lays on the floor drenched in the disgrace of the drunken pair. The cubicles become the pub, the club, the drunken walk home , the university dorm room, the phone box and when it all gets too much the actual toilet. Sat within his own cubicle fitted with his own disco ball at the end is the music man, Shane Durrant, composer and live pianist who appears impartially playing music as and how the women command, to reflect the mood of the drink and drinker they are enacting. Durrant’s compositions are perfect in every way, working in harmony with the girls performance at every turn making the transistion from bar, to pub to club convincing. The girls have in hand a shocking pink digital camera and document their drunken odyssey from start to finish, at first the pictures they take are comical and memorable moments deservedly captured yet as the performance advances the pictures taken are darker seedier, voyeuristic and questionable. Begging the question why do we document our big messy nights out to such an extreme; because they act as our memory when it may be lacking the morning after, because it validates what we are doing if it’s recorded in such a way, because it’s just a bit of fun?
The connection formed between audience and actor, with Jemma and Kylie, was like that you have with the random people you meet on drunken escapades, they are fun and full of life, they are as refreshing as a glass of Pimms on a hot summer’s day. Even if we initially have nothing in common, as Jemma so comically puts it “I WILL find something in common you”, and here alcohol is our common ground. The play ends on a high, as the girls pick themselves off the toilet floor and finish off by karaoke-ing along to ‘Bright Eyes’ with great a emphasis on “I need you more than ever”, you wonder do they mean each or the support that alcohol lends us in social situations?
Ultimately the Paper Birds leave us with that pending question; why as a nation are we so thirsty? It is somewhat discussed and subtly analysed yet no solution is directly found, like life ‘binge’ drinking as the Birds show us its ups and down, it’s comical and also precautionary tales. I for one left the left the theatre gagging to reminisce with my original drinking buddies from my teenage years, and thirsty for a drink laced with that sense of calm and confidence so flawlessly described and acted out by the Birds. Only in the morning after when regret and shame wash over me from my binge will I consider the ramifications of my generation’s drinking culture.
The Paper Birds will be touring the UK with Thirsty until early April