Addressing the cocktail of reasons for drinking, the Paper Birds portray alcohol less as a stimulant than a simulant. The cluster of vox pops that testify to everything from larging it and loneliness share one thing: alcohol takes us out of ourselves. It stops both superego and self-consciousness for, even when we look a dishevelled mess, we feel amazing. There’s a disconnect between sensation and actuality.
Thirsty is trim and smarter than it looks, but its mix of physical routines, personal history and verbatim testimonial never really tells us anything we don’t already know? We’ve seen it all on television, channel-hopping between Skins and Booze Britain. More than that, haven’t most of us have lived it at one point or other?
Despite the row of toilet cubicles, Kylie Walsh and Jemma McDonnell are intent that Thirsty won’t be a lecturing, hectoring Stags and Hens-style affair with a chaser of Daily Mail disgust. They want to re-affirm the normality of drinking, that most of us drink responsibly, even if that involves occasional irresponsibility. ‘We love drinking,’ they growl at the start, almost on heat. A much-needed drink, they say, tastes ‘like getting a seat on the tube…like passing a test first time’. Nevertheless, the cliché wants to be told. It refuses to be dismissed and, by the end, McDonnell is flailing around on the slippery tiles, her hair and clothes soaking, in a desperate bid to reach the toilet.
There’s a nagging suspicion that the Paper Birds want it both ways. After wheeling through a panoply of pissheads, they can get away with the hackneyed old binge Britain idea because they never meant to, honest guv. The show pulls them in its own direction, it runs away of its own accord.
Rather like a boozy night that creeps up on you, in fact. Thirsty’s salience lies in the subtlety with which form mirrors content, slipping gradually out of control. McDonnell and Walsh try to wrestle the narrative off one another throughout. Like little shoulder-devils, they bicker over whether a character should go home and stay sober or stay out and go wild. They interrupt, disagree and refuse to play along. Though understated, it’s a canny device.
Not canny enough, however, to compensate for simple material cutely delivered. After being told off for sentimentality in last year’s Others, Shane Durrant’s piano score is back to its twinkling self, sprinkling the show with unearned whimsy and wistfulness. It tips the balance unfairly in favour of the melancholic – those walking home in the rain or drinking alone – and gilds the picture of those sobbing into their own sick. Thirsty mixes its drinkers, but it favours the sweet and sickly.