Review: Thirst at Vault Festival

You wouldn’t necessarily know until quite a long way into Callum Hughes’ one-man show Thirst that it’s a story about the time his frequent heavy drinking almost killed him. And that’s because it isn’t, really – far from dwelling on the negative impact of alcohol on his life, Callum chooses instead to celebrate everything he could have lost, but didn’t: his family, friends, career, music, and most of all, pubs. The result is a funny, uplifting hour of storytelling, interspersed with live songs – and while it’s certainly a bit of a cautionary tale, there’s no attempt to lecture anyone into sobriety. This is Callum’s story, and what we choose to do with it is up to us.

In fact alcohol doesn’t even get explicitly mentioned for half the show, though its involvement in many of the stories we hear is implied. Instead we learn about Callum’s parents, his sister, his best friends and his old boss, all of whom become familiar recurring characters throughout the show. We hear about the first time he performed for a live audience at his local pub in Oxfordshire, relive New Year’s Eve celebrations with friends, family and famous people, and join him in toasting the memory of award-winning director Bob Carlton. There’s a bit of audience participation too, but the atmosphere is so warm and welcoming and Callum such an engaging host that this never feels in any way threatening.

The same openness carries through when Callum begins to discuss his relationship with alcohol. Unlike many portrayals of addiction, his story isn’t a dramatic one, because alcohol never stopped him functioning. Instead he explains how it quietly became a habit, something to drown out the noise in his head, but never something he tried to hide or considered to be a problem until it was almost too late. He’s honest too about how several people tried to reach out to him about his drinking to no avail, and even when he reached crisis point, he acknowledges it was actually his sister who saved his life.

A likeable and talented performer, whose career credits go far beyond what he discusses in this show, Callum Hughes has created something special in Thirst. His story is both entertaining and highly relatable, tackling a serious topic with self-deprecating humour and concluding with an uplifting message about the joy of simply being alive. There’s no hint of self-pity or bitterness, no sense of having lost anything through giving up drinking, but rather a new appreciation for other aspects of his life alongside, despite everything, a continued fondness for the experiences that alcohol gave him. A fun but thought-provoking piece that’s definitely worth a watch – with or without a drink in your hand.

Thirst has its final performance at Vault Festival tonight (29th January) before continuing on tour.

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