Six months ago Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh, two thirds of Fringe First-winning company The Paper Birds, set up a ‘drunken’ hotline and invited strangers (often inebriated) to phone in and recount their drinking stories. Their aim was to create a play that explored the frank reality of British drinking culture, but at the same time circumvented the knee-jerk hysteria that stifles most public debate about alcohol. The result is Thirsty, a simple but intelligent production, which deftly combines physical theatre with social commentary.
Melding real-life anecdotes with their own autobiographical stories, the play follows Jemma and Kylie from university through to the present day, highlighting the ubiquitous presence of alcohol in their evolving friendship. For them, alcohol cannot be reduced to simple panacea or folk devil. Instead it is a tool, an instrument that acts to alter or enhance their mood, a means of escaping the stresses and strains of everyday life – and, sometimes, a vehicle for avoiding deeper emotional concerns.
The pair are skilled actors, and a combination of onstage chemistry and physical humour keeps Thirsty from appearing too earnest or sanctimonious. The only weakness is a melancholic melody that needlessly flanks the production, pulling on the heartstrings when the script speaks for itself. Nonetheless, this is a brave production that should be applauded for using real research to delve beyond the moral panic about binge-drinking. Rather than judge or pathologise, Thirsty chooses instead to simply examine why we drink, accepting that whether we like it or not, alcohol is an integral part of British cultural life.