Girls tasting their first illicit sip of vodka in the backroom of a smoky club or house party; young women getting tipsy with their friends, celebrating birthdays, hen nights, anniversaries; mothers nursing a glass of wine after a stressful day; couples sharing a bottle to relax and reconnect after a busy week; grandmas sipping a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch: these arethe stories The Paper Birds wanted to tell in its immersive verbatim theatre show, Thirsty. These are the real stories of how the women I know drink, socialise and have fun. But for all its intentions, these were not the stories The Paper Birds told.

This two-women show blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality through the rapport of performers Jemma McDonnell and Kyle Walsh, who draw the audience in by adopting the personas of Juicy Jemma and Kinky Kylie celebrating a hen night. Their continual references to their “real life” friendship grow a little waring but do provide a suitable framework to the verbatim nature of the production, based on material drawn from a blog, questionnaire and phoneline set up by The Paper Birds to invite women (and men) to share their tales of why women drink.

Trying to go beyond the statistics surrounding such a hot media topic was always going to be difficult, but Thirsty begins with an intriguingly fresh and honest look at the types of women who drink, and how drinking changes as the generations pass. However, the setting in the cubicles of the ladies’ toilets evokes a certain type of drinking culture, and it isn’t long before we’re watching the familiar story of a young fresher at university out partying to avoid the loneliness and confusion of her new life away from home. She is not the “ladette” of the tabloids, but there is still something distinctly stereotypical about her, making us question whether those stereotypes are in fact more true to life than we would like to think. Bound by the constraints of verbatim theatre, this story best reflected the majority of binge drinking experiences The Paper Birds recorded. Nonetheless, the constant refrain of “This isn’t the story we wanted to tell” made it difficult to engage with this girl, and her story was subsequently surrounded with an atmosphere of reluctance.

There are some clever conceits in the storytelling, with McDonnell and Walsh drinking (and later dousing themselves with) the contents of countless glasses of “alcohol” lined up around the front of the stage, and taking photos of the audience and their on-stage exploits to recreate the “girls’ night out” vibe. McDonnell and Walsh throw themselves energetically around the stage to the faultlessly frenetic, mellow and moving soundscape provided by Shane Durrant, but their reliance on these two effects eventually distracted from the heroine’s descent into vulnerability and desperation as dresses became drenched and make up smeared.

An admirable and unfailingly enthusiastic effort to challange our perceptions of women who drink, Thirsty feels constrained by the real life material that inspired it as The Paper Birds respect the source material. It succeeded, however, in offering a conflicting and confusing message of both glamorising and problematising female drinking culture. An accurate portrayal of a familiar Friday night scene in any university city perhaps, I couldn’t help but wonder about all those other women who were so tantalisingly mentioned at the start. What was their story? Why do they drink? Do we judge them in the same way? With too many questions unanswered, it was a rather troubling and one-dimensional take on the vast array of female experiences of drinking.

Thirsty was at the Lincoln Drill Hall and continues its tour of the UK until 2nd April. For all tour dates and information, visit The Paper Birds’ website.

Image credit: Paper Birds