Writer and Performer Nathaniel Hall
Director and Dramaturg Chris Hoyle
I saw First Time when it premiered at Waterside Arts in 2018. It was World Aids Day and I sat in the audience remembering all the young men I had worked with at Manchester Aidsline, now George House Trust. It was a profoundly moving and life affirming experience. It was impossible not to weep for old friends long passed away but also to celebrate all those lives now saved by medical advances. I saw the show again in 2019 when it had a hugely successful run at Edinburgh Festival. So watching it for a third time exactly three years on, I wondered if it would still pack the same powerful emotional punch.
Living in a global pandemic would an audience perhaps have sympathy fatigue or just be too shell shocked from Covid-19 to really care about the story of a young man who was once a Head Boy in Stockport? A 16 year old boy who once upon a time ate a stolen chicken and stuffing sandwich from Boots. A 17 year old boy who was utterly alone when he was given a HIV diagnosis. A young man who struggled with such shame, fear and sadness that it was 14 years before he could share his diagnosis with his own family. A full house in the theatre, a sea of candles glimmering in the darkness and a standing ovation was proof enough that this production still has the power to resonate and inspire.
There is something deeply special about First Time as Nathaniel Hall’s experience of living with HIV breaks through stigma and shame and celebrates the messy, often fucked up ways in which we humans navigate pain and trauma in order to survive and hopefully thrive. Hall is working the room from the moment the audience starts to fill the space, charming and fizzing with bonhomie and wisecracks. He has an uncanny knack for drawing you in as he tidies up the scene of last night’s party and cheerfully glugs gin from a lurid bumbag and sniffs white powder from a dubious plastic sachet. He is setting a scene that celebrates living life on his own terms.
Chris Hoyle directs the performance with a really tender touch which belies some of the brittleness that could easily overtake aspects of this piece. By bringing out the warmth and humour in the writing, he ensures that the story is never mawkish or self pitying. He gives Hall space to be vulnerable and perhaps in this production there are also tinges of darkness that feel more harrowing than in previous stagings. There is a truly chilling moment where the man he is now revisits that first relationship and is confronted by the boy he was then, being bathed by his older lover. In that moment his trauma is not just about getting HIV on his first time but about the distress he experiences as he reevaluates what had previously felt so romantic and now seems something more sinister.
This production ticks so many boxes. It is well-crafted and excellent storytelling which charts a journey from naive teenage boy enjoying a first romance through to the shock and isolation of a HIV diagnosis and finally to the acceptance of a young man educating and advocating for others. It entertains and crucially it also informs around current important information around HIV, PrEP, anti-retrovirals and U=U- Undetectable=Untransmittable. It is also a production for everyone and a powerful reminder that as with any infection risk we all need knowledge to be empowered to make positive choices for ourselves and others. Let’s hope that if First Time ever takes its final curtain call that its because there simply are no new cases of HIV.