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Binge Britain in the spotlight

The nation's love affair with booze is centre stage in a slew of dramas that examine our problematic relationship with alcohol
  • @alicevjones

Last summer, the performance artist Bryony Kimmings locked herself in a warehouse in Bethnal Green, east London and got drunk for a week. Not for fun, you understand, but in the name of art: her aim was to explore the links between intoxication and creativity, or to find out whether she was a better artist when she was drunk.

The conclusions reached during her binge make up her theatre piece, 7 Day Drunk. In the show, "created drunk, performed sober", Kimmings relives her experiment in front of an audience, one of whom is handed a pint of vodka and cranberry juice and asked to drink the same amount while watching it as she did while creating it.

Kimmings is not the only performer bringing bar-room culture into the theatre. The Paper Birds trawled the pubs and clubs of London and Leeds to find the raw material for their latest show, Thirsty. They set up a hotline, printed up business cards with the words "Are you drunk? Call this number" and used the voicemails they received as the inspiration for their play about young women and binge drinking, performed to a shouty soundtrack of karaoke classics on a set made out of toilet cubicles.

Elsewhere, the site-specific theatre company Grid Iron is currently touring Barflies, based on three of Charles Bukowksi's most liver-bruising drinking tales, around the pubs of Scotland and Wales; and next month The Thinking Drinker's Guide to Alcohol arrives at London's Soho Theatre, promising a potted history of the strong stuff, washed down with free shots.

What has driven theatre-makers to drink? Drunkards have long been stock characters on stage, from Sir Toby Belch to Jeffrey Bernard. Some of the West End's most memorable performances of late have been fuelled by lashings of whisky – think Benedict Cumberbatch's dissolute alcoholic in After the Dance or Dominic West's addicted academic Butley.

These new plays, though, are less about characterisation than about the psychology of drinking itself. The subject is timely, chiming with the Government's attempts to curb the nation's alcohol habits with various strategies, from guidelines on weekly consumption to drunk tanks and increasing the minimum price. Thirsty was directly inspired by lurid headlines about "Binge Britain", says Jemma McDonnell, artistic director of The Paper Birds. "When you say 'binge drinking', people paint an unfair picture. It's usually young, overweight, working-class ladettes with high heels they can't walk in and skirts that are too short. But a binge is three drinks. At first I was adamant that we needed to be talking about everybody who has over three drinks, quashing the idea that binge drinking is just about young people out in Newcastle on a Friday night."

While they set out to overturn stereotypes and paint a new picture of the national love affair the voicemails told a different story. "We kept on getting responses from young women", says McDonnell. "Eventually we gave into it."

And so Thirsty begins with a raucous hen night – all Beyoncé, net veils and shots – and ends with a mass singalong to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart". In between, McDonnell, 30, and Kylie Walsh, 29, ask pertinent questions about why we binge and explore the darker side of drinking. Far from a public-health announcement dressed up as physical theatre, the pair act out testimonies from young women – some celebratory, some cautionary – alongside the sauvignon-soaked tale of their own friendship. "The big karaoke number is so important. There had to be a sense of brushing ourselves off, going back out and having a drink. It's not meant to be educational. We're asking questions rather than giving answers and trying to get people to ask questions of themselves", says McDonnell.

7 Day Drunk is similarly inquisitive, focusing on the historic links between artists and alcohol. Kimmings was inspired partly by a writer friend who is a recovering alcoholic; partly by the Wooster Group's infamous 1983 work L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...), which included a re-enactment of an acid-fuelled rehearsal; and partly by her own "rocky relationship" with drink. The high point is a song in which Kimmings recites a list of great artists who have relied on the bottle. "It's called 'Bow down before me I'm an artist' and is to all of the artists who have ever imbibed and thought it was cool", she says. "We know that Jim Morrison, Charles Bukowski, Truman Capote were addicts and we've accepted that. What is it about that phenomenon that makes it OK?"

To find out, she applied to the Wellcome Trust for funding and assembled a crack cast of scientists and medical professionals to observe and advise her on her quest to discover whether hard liquor really can inspire a masterpiece. With the pseudo-scientific stage set, she embarked on her seven-day experiment. Every day for a week, she went to her studio and started drinking at 10am, gradually increasing the amount each day; by the end she was having 10 shots of vodka for breakfast. Once she hit the required blood-alcohol level, she started to make work – songs, poems, cabaret turns, costumes. At six o'clock every night she would stop drinking and perform the day's work in front of an audience, who would grade it.

"The last few days were quite tough. I was in a bit of a stupor", recalls Kimmings. "I was a lab rat that people were watching and there was something quite freakshow-like about it, that I found interesting. It reminded me of Amy Winehouse, people watching her demise."

By the end of the week, Kimmings had a terrible hangover and enough material to start making her show proper. The result, billed as "two parts song-and-dance routine, one part breakdown" is a riotous blend of dancing, outlandish costumes and songs interspersed with film footage, video diaries from the experts and a moving film about her friend. "It's a bit like a variety show", she explains. "But there's only me in it."

That's not strictly true. Kimmings encourages her audience to join in – forcing them to lose their inhibitions, dance around, maybe even kiss a stranger. Not to mention the female guinea pig who is asked to binges during the show. It's all done responsibly, Kimmings assures me. Volunteers are quizzed beforehand and breathalysed throughout. "And then we give them a taxi home and tell them not to drink again for an hour". Why do it? "It's very rare that you get the opportunity to look at alcohol as the drug that it is. We drink it so readily and over such a long period and we're often too drunk to notice what we're doing. It's OK for me to say, 'This is what I learned' but I wanted people physically to see it happening."

So did vodka help Kimmings to become a better artist? To answer that would spoil the ending. Suffice to say, like Thirsty, proceedings end on a bittersweet high. "There's no message in it. It's a chance, over an hour, to look at a phenomenon that we take for granted." In the meantime, Kimmings has learned her own lessons. "It's definitely changed my relationship with alcohol. I think more about whether to get drunk, now that I know what it does to my brain. It's slightly taken the fun out of it."

'Thirsty', touring to 2 April (thepaperbirds.com); '7 Day Drunk', to 31 March, Soho Theatre, London, then touring to 26 May (bryonykimmings.com)