Tuesday, December 5

First Time – Unity Theatre

Raw. Funny. Honest. Tonight, we met Nathaniel J Hall in all his glory and left the theatre better for it.

Known for his role in Russell T Davies ‘It’s A Sin’ Hall has already established himself as an actor to watch. With First Time he is also establishing himself as a writer to watch. First Time manages to fit jokes, a re-enacted prom, silly string, and a quiz into the running time without it becoming farcical or cheesy; much of it is delivered with the light-hearted naivety of youth, providing a contrast to the sudden crash into the adult world Hall found himself confronted with.

Opening up a topic that doesn’t often reach the mainstream warrants recognition. Doing it in a way that connects and engages a wide audience is to be even more commended.

When did you last see a mainstream production about the experience of being HIV+? Do you know the difference between HIV+ and AIDS? It is not often we see people display such candid vulnerability on stage.

Presented by Dibby Theatre and commissioned by Waterside Arts with support from Arts Council England, this frank, funny performance has more layers to it than it first seems. It is more than just Hall sharing his experiences as an HIV+ individual. It is a work of stigma-busting social education that subtly draws a spotlight on the prejudice and othering LGBTQ+ people face, both in modern times and historically. Humanity and humility are the heart here. George House Trust also feature prominently and are clearly doing great work to help people live positively.

An autobiographical one-man show, it has Hall as both the actor and the subject, giving it a power beyond the average performance. Having only one person on stage seems to echo the loneliness of diagnosis and the impact of shame. Upon entering the auditorium, rather underdressed, Nathaniel greets people. Staggering with a gin bottle and dressing gown, a swig is periodically taken as he smiles and wanders up to interact with the audience. It isn’t clear if this is to help settle his nerves, be generally social or set the scene for the part of him he is about to play.

First Time recounts his life story from the summer he first had sex, and the consequences of that first initiation into adulthood from when he was little more than a boy. There is something reminiscent of a young Elton John about him in terms of the self-destructive path he has endured and the raw, open-hearted person you’re faced with when he steps onto the stage; you cannot help but like him. You cannot help but root for this show to keep adding more last minute, extra dates to the calendar as it has been.

The staging by Irene Jade was very well-considered in order for this to work as a one-man show. Everything needed is already on the stage and thanks to clever sound interventions and lighting cuts from Joel Clements, the movement between time, scenes and the omniscient narrator are well blended. It’s hard at times to tell which parts are just Hall being himself and which parts are those acting skills coming through.

There is laughing throughout.  There were tears for some by the end of it.

Hall has endured the ups and downs of diagnosis and in First Time, the audience is taken on an insightful journey with him. What a difference his presence makes in the world, not only in terms of being a skilled actor but also as a warm human being.

You are enough.

If you want to keep track of what Dibby Theatre (@DibbyTheatre) and Nathaniel J Hall (@NathanielJHall) do next and where they will be, more information is available at www.dibbytheatre.org You can also support their work by purchasing the play text and merchandise.

Reviewer: Ezzy LaBelle

Reviewed: 22nd October 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★