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6th December 2021

Review: First Time

Head of Culture Michal Wasilewski reviews First Time at Contact Theatre – written by and starring Nathaniel Hall
Review: First Time
Photo: Andrew Perry.

In his autobiographical show First Time, Nathaniel Hall takes the audience on the journey through his life, from getting infected with HIV at 16, through years of struggling to accept himself, to the present day, being openly HIV-positive artist and activist.

Nathaniel engages the audience before the show. When we come in, he’s already on stage. Lying on the floor under a blanket, asleep and hangover after going out the night before. He welcomes us apologetically, while hurriedly trying to clean up all the mess left in his flat after the party. 

He is likeable from the first apology, and it doesn’t take him much to already have an emotional connection with the audience by the time the show starts.

As we learn later, Nathaniel we met in the beginning was Nathaniel in 2017, Nathaniel that was struggling to come to terms with reality, who was relying on drugs and alcohol to forget about all his problems. Especially his main problem, having an HIV-positive status, about which he still hadn’t been able to tell his parents, even after 15 years of trying to do so.

We learn the story of his life in a nonlinear manner, jumping back and forth between his school years and the present. We are with him when, on the evening of his prom, he meets an attractive older man who will eventually become the first person he has sex with. And who, as we know, will give him HIV. 

Nathaniel invites us to his prom, quite literally, asking one member of the audience to join him on stage for a socially distanced dance. By this simple but creative move he manages to further establish the connection with us, making us look at him as a friend, or maybe someone we know from school.

The show is full of emotional moments, but the one whose impact will undoubtedly stay with the audience long after, are Nathaniel’s first visits in the sexual health clinic and the moment he receives his diagnosis. The shock and horror, the ringing in his ears; everything blends into one, as do the next 15 years of his life which end up being a constant fight to accept the diagnosis.

When telling the story of his life with the virus, Nathaniel mentions the shame and the stigma that he encountered many times throughout the years, and how important it is for him to educate people about HIV. Therefore, he implemented plenty of educational value into the show.

At some point, he invites the audience to take part in a short and hilarious quiz on knowledge about risky sexual behaviours, HIV, and the HIV treatment. All this to ensure that people will leave the theatre knowing more about the disease than they did before. He emphasises the importance of regular STI testing, all of which is plotted within the show and the story in an organic, non-invasive way.

Towards the end, he takes the educational aspect further, teaching us about the history of HIV and the beginnings of the AIDS pandemic back in the 80s. Every member of the audience is handed an LED candle, and the candlelight vigil follows naturally, connecting everyone in the audience with Nathaniel, as well as with the 36 million victims of the epidemic and 38 million people currently living with HIV around the world.

It would be easy for a show of this kind to rely exclusive on emotionally heavy exploration of trauma and depression. Nathaniel, however, constructs a mixture of the heavy tones and humour, some of it dark, some of it simple and lighthearted. He doesn’t try to overwhelm the audience with sadness, and succeeds at achieving the balance between being funny, educational, thoughtful, and emotional.

Although it is the story of Nathaniel’s life, there is a plethora of universality to it, and Nathaniel himself mentions it openly. It is not just a story of him meeting an attractive older guy, contracting HIV at 16, and fighting to come to terms with it. It is a story hailing the efforts of all the people helping to fight HIV, from the first nurses in 80s AIDS wards, to the symbolic Sue – sexual health clinic nurse who told Nathaniel about his diagnosis, to all the charities and foundations raising awareness about HIV.

When leaving the theatre, everyone is handed a white envelope. Inside it, an emotional letter that Nathaniel wrote to his parents back in 2017, in which he tells them about being HIV positive and apologising for not coming out earlier. By this organic prolongation of the show’s impact, Nathaniel makes sure that everyone in the audience will remember his story and the lessons he taught.

Nathaniel Hall’s First Time resumes its UK tour from January through to March 2022. In the meantime, check out the interview we did with him – to learn more about First Time, his time on It’s A Sin, and his HIV activism.

Michal Wasilewski

Michal Wasilewski

Managing Editor of Culture for The Mancunion.

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