Why do we drink? To relax after a long day at work? To celebrate a success? To forget a failure? To fit in or to stand out? As a nation, we’ve got a complicated relationship with booze – step out on an average Saturday night in any city or large town up and down the country and you’re likely to be confronted by the live version of Swanenburgh’s The Harrowing of Hell – so it’s perhaps more relevant to ask why so many Brits drink to excess on a regular basis. Leeds-based theatre company The Paper Birds also want to know, so they set up a blog, a questionnaire and a drunken hotline to find out the stories behind our drinking habits, the results of which were poured into Thirsty.
With the set depicting a public toilet, it’s clear that we’re not investigating wine appreciation evenings. Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh lurch out of their cubicles in full-on Hen Night-mare mode, sporting cheeky t-shirts and L-plates, bellowing declarations of love for each other and accosting members of the audience for photos, lap-time and a phone number across the midriff. Then Kylie does a moonie and demands that Jemma gets her tits out. Disembodied voices (male and female) describe their feelings about drunk women – “intimidating …. annoying … they should be ashamed of themselves” – as the pair grapple around the stage. Either you’ve seen variations on this scenario or been there yourself – either way, it sets the scene for Thirsty’s clear-eyed exploration of the female experience of drinking culture; more specifically, the young female experience (Shane Durrant is confined to a cubicle throughout, providing musical accompaniment and the occasional comment).
In between recalling the path of their decade-long friendship and its alcohol-related milestones, Kylie and Jemma read out collected testimonies, and muse on their own relationships with booze as well as that of the anonymous participants. Kylie keeps returning to the story of an 18-year-old undergraduate, she’s away from home, lonely… but no, no, Jemma insists, that’s not the story they want to tell; they want to convey the fun and the freedom of drinking, and the freedom of modern women to drink, when they want, how they want, and as much as they want. But as their debate goes on, and Jemma tries to convey the joys of inebriation – its physical sensations especially – this particular young girl’s story rises to the top again and again.
This isn’t a show about alcoholism, or the steady obliteration of days necessitated by lack of opportunities, poverty or trauma – although, perhaps this is where it starts. It’s a brilliantly performed, playfully imaginative and very funny attempt to understand the allure of excess, but in focussing on the lonely 18-year-old undergraduate, unsure of her place in the world, and what happens when a few drinks to help her flirt with the guy she likes lead to… well, the inevitable, it highlights the dangers inherent in losing control. As the girls down drink after drink in a club, their movements disintegrating steadily towards incapacitation, dresses soaked, make-up smeared down their faces, it all gets horribly, painfully messy. And that definitely is the inevitable result of drinking too much.
At just under an hour, Thirsty’s scope is limited somewhat, but it’s an open, honest look at the excesses of female booze culture, and if it doesn’t quite answer the ‘why’, it will certainly make anyone who sees it think twice before ordering another round of Jagerbombs.