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Published on Tuesday, 09 August 2011

5 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
3-14, 16-28 Aug, 5:45pm-6:45pm
Reviewed by Sarah Hill

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Building on the success of previous years, The Paper Birds return to the Pleasance with a new production that examines the nation’s burgeoning love affair with alcohol. Focussing in particular on young women, it hardly sounds like a riot, given the depressing statistics and worn-out clichés that immediately spring to mind. But please don’t allow such presumptions to cloud your judgement – for in reality, this is genuine Fringe theatre at its most explosively inventive.

Thirsty is a strikingly imaginative piece devised from hundreds of testimonies sent in by the public; real-life tales dominated by a recurring female voice. Students, teenagers and office workers united by a youthful love of alcohol so overwhelmed the correspondence that their stories became unavoidable. As a result, ‘she’ becomes the nameless, faceless heroine of Thirsty, and from the refuge of three toilet stalls the brilliant Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh negotiate their way through variations on a drunken night out – interspersed by their own personal experiences, and blasts of Beyoncé. Humorously speculating about the story in the process of telling it, and placing themselves – literally – into ‘her’ red stiletto shoes, they embark on a truly insightful exercise in empathy.

Whilst the piece deals sensitively with this highly relevant topic, there is nothing here that is hectoring or authoritative. Instead it feels more like a conversational series of confessions, that happen to have been stunningly choreographed; a fascinating dynamic aided greatly by the willingness of the performers to share their real-life friendship, and a refreshing refusal to take themselves too seriously. Halfway through a raucous hen-party, they look at themselves and sheepishly apologise for failing to avoid the obvious. Thirsty is clearly a show that poses questions without presuming it knows the answers.

As a result, the overall experience feels profoundly real: behind the hilarity of paralytic dancing and a surprisingly poignant stint at karaoke, the performances bristle beautifully with an inexhaustible sense of frustration and urgency. Jemma McDonnell’s failed attempts to coherently articulate an alcohol-induced cocktail of emotions are as moving as they are funny. But somehow the message is understood, and herein lies the production’s real success. Through a mesmerizingly ingenious vocabulary of movement, visuals and music, this show manages to authentically capture numerous female experiences to which words are ultimately inadequate. As a young woman myself, I felt captivated by its honesty, prompted effortlessly into thoughts of my own friendships and how alcohol has played a part in my own life.

It’s not often that I struggle to find fault with a show. Thirsty was perhaps overly repetitive towards the end, and patience-testing at its more climactic moments involving copious amounts of water, but in the context of a piece that questions repeated patterns of behaviour it hardly seemed to matter. Intellectually and emotionally absorbing, this is a production of unquestionably high calibre from an immensely accomplished and exciting company. Thirsty is one of the few booze-fuelled hours of your life you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

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