Theatre review: I Am Tonie Walsh at Project, Dublin

By Alan O’Riordan

To say that the old rallying cry “the personal is political” applies to the life of Tonie Walsh is an understatement. As a DJ, civil rights campaigner, impresario, and magazine editor, Walsh has for decades been at the heart of Ireland’s gay scene and one of Ireland’s leading advocates for LGBTQ rights. His story is the story of a community’s fight for official recognition, social acceptance and equality.

So, when he invites us to “time travel” at the beginning of this one-man show by ThisIsPopBaby, we’re going back not just to his younger days, but to another era, too. Fittingly — this is the Project, after all — we begin in Temple Bar, with the Hirschfield Center, and its disco, Flikkers. These are just the first literal and metaphorical landmarks that intertwine with Walsh’s own adventures in love and life, sex and drugs, parties and politics.

The Hirschfield was destroyed by fire, but Walsh was able to save a pair of Technics’ legendarily durable SL 1200 turntables. They form the centrepiece of Ciaran O’Melia’s set, which seeks to create the sense of the “back to the gaff” parties that pepper Walsh’s stories. It’s an intimate setup, with the audience banked on three sides, for a deeply intimate portrait of a man in full, reaching its most poignant moment as he leafs through an old diary, listing the names of friends who died during the Aids epidemic.

This is powerful raw material. Pity, then, that co-writer Phillip McMahon did not give it more shape. The structure, a sequence of anecdotes linked only chronologically, feels loose, with momentum petering several times as we await the setting of a new scene, the introduction of a new character.

Meanwhile, Walsh’s delivery often lacks rhythm, or fails to put proper emphasis on key moments and revelations. Often, it feels as if he’s interrupted by overwriting, or cliche. Clubs like the POD or Rí-Rá, we are told, were not just “taking things up a notch”, but also “raising the bar”, and “setting a template”; got that?

Yet, after a couple of costume changes, it all swells to an irresistible call to action, an uplifting final reminder of the duty and burden of optimism, something all too easy to shirk in these times.

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