Can you remember your first time? Nathaniel Hall can’t seem to forget his. He contracted HIV the first time he had sex, aged 16. Receiving the diagnosis just two weeks after his 17th birthday, it took Nathaniel fourteen years to open up to his family. A year later, he penned an autobiographical play about his experiences, which he also performs. First Time made its debut at Sale’s Waterside Arts, coinciding with World Aids Day. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, it is now embarking on a small tour, before heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe throughout August.
By dramatising the events of his own life, Nathaniel Hall aims to raise awareness of HIV, and break the stigma surrounding it, because Tom Hanks in Philadelphia just won’t cut it these days.
As you enter the theatre, Nathaniel greets the audience, apologising for not being ready, as he cleans his messy room mess. Wearing a dressing gown and dancing along to Wham’s Club Tropicana (where drinks are definitely not free), Hall apologises for looking like a “total trashbag”. He had a wild party the night before.
Hall takes us on a journey through his life, starting on the day of his high school prom in 2003. Nathaniel waits for his cream tuxedo on a bench in Stockport, a location that may be subtly reflected by First Time‘s striking new stage design. A neon blue triangle dominates the rear stage, perhaps representing the iconic Stockport Pyramid, a familiar sight to Mancunians, and those who travel on the M60.
As Nathaniel kills time by playing Snake on his Nokia 3310, he meets a man who looks like Will Young, eating a stolen Boots meal deal. This is Sam, Nathaniel’s first sexual partner. Hall shows how he was swept up in the whirlwind romance that followed by firing confetti into the air. It was 2003. It was the summer of love.
Three months after his breaking up with Sam, Nathaniel falls ill whilst on holiday with his family, a scene portrayed through Hall’s unique brand of humour, using silly string and The Ketchup Song to remarkable effect. In November, Nathaniel is diagnosed with HIV, and a high-pitched ringing pierces our ears.
Striking imagery is created as Hall stabs the heart-shaped balloon. A symbol of his years of innocence and fun being shattered, as he is thrust into adulthood, and the realisation that he is HIV+. It is an emotional, sobering moment that changes the tone of the play. Although advances in medicine mean that being diagnosed with HIV is no longer seen as a death sentence in this country, Nathaniel poignantly portrays the realities of his treatment, eating tablets by the bowlful.
The next fourteen years that followed are read aloud in the form of a list of things that have happened to him since his diagnosis, from becoming an uncle, to losing a close friend, and recently enduring a homophobic attack at Pets at Home.
Struggling to cope with shame and anxiety, the George House Trust offered a lifeline to Nathaniel. It took him fourteen years to open up to his family, writing them four letters. Four little letters; H, O, P, E.
Now, he is an activist devoted to educating people about HIV, and eradicating the virus’ stigma. He brings this to First Time through an interactive quiz that will have you shouting “I love orgies!” whilst simultaneously learning that being HIV Undetectable means that you cannot transmit HIV to others, that Undetectable = Untransmittable. This is a show that educates as well as entertains.
First Time is a remarkable testament of resilience, hope, and survival. “I survived!” he says. Many didn’t. A candlelit vigil is held for those who have died as a result of contracting HIV. Emotionally devastating, I wasn’t the only person who wept at this.
Nathaniel Hall is not only courageous, but hugely inspirational for translating his experiences into a piece of entertaining, educational theatre that destigmatises HIV. Surprisingly funny, yet equally moving, First Time is an exceptional play, written and performed by an extraordinary individual. In an increasingly intolerant society, it is difficult not to be inspired by Nathaniel’s optimism and hope. Those four little letters:-
H O P E.