It is every young gay man’s worst nightmare. Recently out, grappling with all the hopes and fears of the new path ahead of you, to then receive what seems to be a proclamation of doom: a positive HIV test. This is what happened to actor Nathaniel Hall – of It’s a Sin fame – after losing his virginity at the age of 16. And First Time is his spellbinding story, realised in a 75 minute one-man show, that journeys all the way from initial devastation to present-day pride.
The play opens with Hall in a tank top and pair of Y-fronts, dancing around the stage to Club Tropicana, chit-chatting to the audience, and sniffing from a tiny plastic bag. It is a recognisable reality to anyone who has spent five minutes on the gay party scene – and this self-presentation immediately acclimatises us to his witty, honest and vulnerable self. But soon, we are in Stockport in 2003, finding Hall aged 16, not yet out, but looking forward to his school prom and all the possibilities of his life ahead. Before any of that can happen, though, he meets Sam, the older man who would transmit HIV to Hall, who the besotted teenager finds to be the spitting image of Will Young.
First Time captures the essence of so many experiences that will be recognisable to so many. The excitement of meeting someone for the first time, the experiences of being a small-town gay, the coming out to a middle class, conservative, but ultimately loving family. After his diagnosis, we see Hall at his most vulnerable – naked, retching, scoffing incalculable quantities of drugs – before later appreciating the man he has become, in his mid-thirties, coming to terms with his identity and looking to the future. And it is all told through a beguiling soundscape of early noughties music, capturing the tentative possibility felt by a community emerging from the AIDs pandemic of the 80s and 90s, as well as reminding us of how he can never escape that experience of his 16-year-old self that changed his life forever.
This story of a gay man catching HIV is fundamentally very simple. But the way in which it is told – with audience participation, disrupted timeframes that jump between the past and present, and a laugh-out-loud script – makes it engaging and fresh. At one point it even becomes a sex education lesson, with Hall going through the talk he often gives to school children, only with an added “adult edge”, and inevitable hilarity.
First Time is a story of hope, of emerging from traumatic circumstances that so many people still know so little about. Hall has been touring his play since 2018, but it feels incredibly vital. Let us hope he receives both the platform, and financial support, to keep telling his story for many years yet.
First Time is at The Pleasance until 13th February