Nathaniel Hall is HIV positive. He was diagnosed two weeks after his 17th birthday, following his first sexual encounter. It took him 14 years to tell his mum. And yet, barely a year later, Nathaniel Hall stands in front of a packed audience at Waterside to tell his story. And it is delightful and devastating in equal measure.
First Time is (unexpectedly, given the subject matter) hilarious. From the outset, Hall establishes a real rapport with the audience and brilliantly conveys the sense of a young, bright 16 year old, coming to terms with his sexuality, full of hope and enjoying life. We ‘get’ how intoxicating it was, back in 2003, to meet ‘a real out and proud gay man’, to feel desired by him (especially when he was ‘the spit of Will Young’!) and to luxuriate in the intimacy of that first sexual relationship.
This upbeat mood is, of course, all changed by the diagnosis of HIV. And what is especially impressive about First Time as a piece of theatre is how effectively the shift of tone and pace is managed. Clever sound design perfectly conveys the impact of the moment in which he received the test results: a cacophony of distorted, echoey words swirls around the theatre while a screeching, high-pitched whistle seems to pierce your very soul. And then, it stops. And the bouncy, jovial, colourful young man is replaced by a solemn adult, standing motionless before us at a microphone, reading, without emotion or expression, a long list of what followed that diagnosis. A harsh white spotlight casts shadows on his face and accentuates his pallor. The boy has become the man, unnaturally and tragically, and in an instant.
Hall’s journey over the following decade takes us through treatment, drugs (medicinal and ‘recreational’) to the Positively Speaking programme and George’s House Trust. Described in this way it sounds as though the journey was a linear one – from despair to recovery. Not so. The complexity of the process and the fragility of the gains made are brilliantly displayed. In one of the most memorable moments in the show, Hall stands on a box in his dressing gown, gorging on ‘sweets’. Will Young croons accompaniment, and Hall, with his mouth and cheeks bulging with ‘confectionery’ and his face covered in white powder, tries to sing along. It is an excruciatingly vivid portrait of desperation and denial. Hall (supported by director Chris Hoyle) has a sense of theatricality which ensures that the audience feels the full emotional impact of that story.
Talking of which, I should confess that I’ve struggled to write this review – not because of any ambivalence about the show (far from it) but rather because I’ve had to stop at various points and just let the tears flow. They are tears for that 17 year old’s loss of hope. For the betrayal he suffered at the hands of someone who should have known better (and probably did). For the physical and mental anguish as he struggled with the treatment and the fear and the shame. They are tears of rage for the injustice of all of that. But most of all, they are tears of raw admiration for this man who has somehow found the strength and creativity and sheer generosity of spirit to turn the suffering into something extraordinary: a thoroughly entertaining and engaging piece of theatre which is genuinely inspiring – a true statement of hope. I absolutely loved it, was deeply moved by it, and will remember it. What more could you ask?