Review: I am Tonie Walsh. What is a club DJ if not a keeper of records?

Walsh chronicles several turbulent decades of progress and setbacks in his solo show

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I am Tonie Walsh     

★★★

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

The sturdy turntables on Tonie Walsh’s desk are not any old decks. They are Technics SL-1200s, standing on shock-absorbing rubber legs, and they could really tell you some stories.

Miraculous survivors of the fire that devastated the Hirschfeld Centre, Ireland’s first LGBT centre, in 1987 – home to the legendary gay nightclub Flikkers and the crucible of many of Walsh’s erotic and political awakenings – they may seem uncharacteristically austere for the DJ, club promoter, activist, archivist and inspiration nicknamed “The Godfather of Gay”.

But they have been with him through every seminal party, and poignant send-off, through successive turbulent decades for LGBTQ rights. “They’re fucking flawless,” Tonie approves, as another 1970s disco number spins under a huge glitter ball during Thisispopbaby’s warm production. “They’re irreplaceable.”

That goes for many of the individuals who come into Walsh’s life, gay in a country that made them criminals, who may find themselves on the dancefloor, at a party, or on a march or, more tragically, snuffed out in devastating numbers by the Aids epidemic.

Walsh – passionate, ebullient and neurotically over detailed – is the chronicler of this time, from the late 70s to today, and working with co-writer Phillip McMahon, his show draws from artefacts, diaries and tape recordings intent to keep this social history spinning. Those turntables are a potent symbol. What is a DJ if not a record keeper?

Turning the biography of so meticulous a man into a show, though, is no easy task. Director Tom Creed hopes to emulate the feel of one of Walsh’s famous house parties, framed on a pink triangular stage in Ciaran O’Melia’s sparing design, bordered by the audience. But the script is a comparatively straight chronology, thick with dates and details and digressions. The ethos of the decks, Walsh insists, is all about mixing. The text seems loath to omit anything - so attentive to the politics of memory that it seems to have been a struggle to memorise.

Walsh’s biography offers much resonant material – his mother was a dancer and his father a musician, for instance, which makes his calling seem fated. But few stories are prioritised, from significant relatives to a series of boyfriends, both the toxic and tonics, while Tonie himself is a cocktail of caution and heedlessness.

This can lead to horrible ironies - an Aids activist who contracted HIV in harrowing circumstances - and some surprising advice born of experience. “If you’re going to do crystal meth,” he tells us, “do it in a hospital”.

Much of Walsh’s life, nonetheless, has been spent at the service of others, his private evocations on romance and trauma slaloming routinely into broader public struggles.

That comes together most tragically in the litany of friends who succumb to Aids, at a time when the contraceptive ban exacerbated the plight of a beleaguered gay community. With age, Walsh’s parties get darker. The first Alternative Miss Ireland (“gay Christmas”) and later the Marriage Referendum coincide with the deaths of his parents, a series of milestones and headstones.

When Walsh speaks of “ritualising our loss and memorialising our friends” the move to create an Irish Aids memorial ought to snowball into a campaign. But the performance is its own political message. “We need to make a show of ourselves,” he says. With a cascade of giddying and sobering recollections, this one is well worth watching.

Until December 1st

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