Major hit for theatre company showing a thirst for success

The Paper Birds' latest show
The Paper Birds' latest show
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Yorkshire theatre company Paper Birds have scored their biggest hit with their latest show. Nick Ahad spoke to them.

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Yorkshire companies were all the rage.

Rash Dash, Belt Up, a multitude of smaller companies – all were winning high praise and lots of fans.

The company that was getting major national coverage though – appearing on BBC2’s Review Show and being favourably reviewed – and flying the flag highest for Yorkshire, was The Paper Birds.

A company made up of Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh, two young women who trained at Bretton Hall, graduating in 2003, they were somehow scoring major amounts of publicity for their show Thirsty, which was a constant sell-out.

The irony is that it was a show for which they were not awarded a Fringe First, unlike previous productions the pair had taken up to the annual event. Not that the lack of official plaudits matters, because Kylie and Jemma won plenty of praise for the show and are currently restaging Thirsty, taking it out on a 33 venue tour around the UK – the company’s biggest to date.

“Our opening date of the tour is in Sheffield on January 30, and we’ve already sold out, which is just overwhelming,” says McDonnell. “Our previous biggest show, In a Thousand Pieces, which won a Fringe First, went to 20 venues, so this is a big step up and really quite amazing.”

The secret behind the company’s success is that it has always treated Edinburgh and the Fringe as a shop window, but has remained committed to touring. Over eight years the company has built a strong following in Edinburgh, but has never lost sight of the fact that it wants to take work out on the road.

A company that creates work through devising and collecting evidence to build into their work, The Paper Birds hit on a story that resonated for their latest show. Thirsty explores our relationship with alcohol and what the effects can be of drinking to excess.

“We set up an answering service and took the number out to bars around the country,” says McDonnell.

“We asked people to call and leave messages when they’d been drinking and the stories that were left were incredible. We used that material, brought our own stories to it and created the show.

“I think the reason it was so popular at the festival and why we’ve been booked for so many venues this year is because it’s a subject that fascinates us all. Even if you don’t drink, this idea that we are a nation of drinkers is something that is interesting.”

Based at West Park, in a former school building it once shared with Northern Ballet Theatre, McDonnell says the company has come a long way – which it clearly has – while staying rooted here.

Stories of a thirsty nation

Based on our nation’s love affair with alcohol, Thirsty weaves together real stories, memories and booze based confessions, collected from a ‘drunken hotline’ and an online questionnaire. Fusing live music, verbatim text and physical theatre, The Paper Birds explore the stories of a thirsty nation.