Thursday 29th March 2023 at Camden People’s Theatre, London
Reviewer: Emma Dorfman
Just by reading the description of Dia-Beat-Es, performed and written by Paul O’Donnell (who self-identifies as ‘he/him/bro/dawg/homie’), one might think: Oh, is he serious? You might also consider, this is either going to be wildly offensive or wildly successful. I’m pleased to say the latter is true.
Paul’s character is both perfectly cringeworthy and adorably unsure. He is so unapologetically himself that it’s nearly impossible not to love him. In his Calvin Harris-like DJ set, with sprinkles of verbatim sampling, you may find yourself waving your hands in the air (like you just don’t care). But you also might find yourself in absolute stillness—hanging onto every word. You also might find yourself in tears— whether those be attributed to joy, laughter, or a deep sense of empathy or recognition.
Paul is a type 1 diabetic, and he has been for 28 years of his life. Oh, and yes, he has decided to create a super ‘phresh’ DJ set on the topic. As someone whose mother is a type 1 diabetic, and has been for about just as long as Paul, there were many moments that I found to be unexpectedly funny. At times, they were a bit uncomfortable but ultimately touching. There were many reckonings throughout the performance that were (quite smartly) interrupted by odd and deliciously awkward sampling. In one instance, Paul takes a few words from his sister’s interview, in which she talks about the difficulties their family faced following Paul’s diagnosis at age 2: ‘there were a lot of struggles’ transforms into ‘lot of str-str-struggles’, and we riff from there. Lots of moments like this almost make you go, should we be laughing at this?
Paul’s brilliant affability and outward humility assure us that any reaction is okay. He speaks a lot about making mistakes (And he even makes a few mistakes before our very eyes whilst DJ’ing! But he laughs it off, and we do too). He talks about the highs and lows of his blood sugars— how one mistake could send you into ketones or do long-lasting damage to your pancreas. He’s only been a DJ for five months now, he tells us, ‘so bear with me’. He twists multiple knobs simultaneously, pushes various coloured buttons, queues songs up on his laptop— all of these being honest technical skills that elude me and, I am sure, many of my fellow audience members. Paul reminds us that being a diabetic is a lot like being a DJ, but it would be like if you were a DJ, 24/7, working overtime, with no paid holiday and no days off.
It was at this point that I was struck the most, and I found myself reflecting on my own experience and its place in Paul’s story. At one point, Paul plays out an interview segment from his mum. She talks about when Paul was younger, and she was constantly worried about managing his blood sugar/insulin levels. One Christmas, he played an angel in an annual nativity scene. The scene, though, was delayed by quite some time, which allowed for Paul’s sugars to drop dangerously low by the end of it all. It was at this point, his mum says, that she felt so guilty for putting him in that position. And, by the tone of her voice, it seems she still feels guilty.
Up until this moment, I never paid too much attention to how my mum’s diabetes may have affected me and my own family– how her own highs and lows affected all of us deeply as well, allowing us to feel, just for a moment, that out of control feeling she must get constantly. As Paul says, he’s never really known what it’s like to not have diabetes (he was diagnosed officially at age 2). For him, it was always just there.
Diabetes, and especially type 1 diabetes (a genetically linked, auto-immune disorder, and quite different from its type 2 counterpart) tends to fly under the radar when it comes to incurable diseases. This is, perhaps, because it is deemed as ‘manageable’. Type 1 diabetics live almost completely normal lives now. Even in the span of the past 30 years, my mum has gone from wearing a clunky pump, clipped to her waist and with all sorts of wires attached, to being alerted by an app on her phone that her blood sugars are falling (she has a sensor implanted in her arm, so it’s still not complete magic). Just because the disease is ‘manageable’, though, doesn’t mean it still doesn’t get exhausting.
At the end of his set, Paul talks about diabetes burnout, and how, after 28 years, he still feels it every now and then. At least for now, all he can do is try his hardest to ‘tune it out’.
Dia-Beat-Es is at Camden People’s Theatre, London until April 1st 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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