First Time (VAULT Festival, until February 2nd)
Hope is the beating heart of an incisive and intelligent one-man show telling a personal story about living with HIV/AIDS which encourages everybody to be forward-looking, bold and proud.
First Time is an early offering in a ridiculously packed VAULT season but it is already a stand-out production that will be hard to better 600 shows down the line.
Written and performed by an instantly likeable Nathaniel Hall First Time works on more levels than shows which have twice its running time. It is bravely autobiographical, relating how Hall contracted HIV the first time he had sex with an older man he met on a park bench at the age of 16; it is tellingly informative, with a light-hearted quiz quickly clearing up misconceptions about HIV; it offers confident optimism to anyone living with any stigma of shame or fear; it never once sugar-coats the reality of a condition that has claimed the lives of 35 million people and has another 37 million living with it; and it is never afraid to treat what could be a harrowing subject with humour.
And those facts are all a surprise, not least the important truth that someone on HIV treatment whose viral load is “undetectable” is also “untransmittable” and cannot pass the virus onto others. Even this information is handled with a naughty glint that suggests Hall might be flirting with likely audience members.
Festival style shows lasting 60-70 minutes are generally simply staged with as few props as possible. Hall makes everything difficult for himself by firing silly string into the audience, popping a streamer cannon, and spilling bowls of pills all over the stage. You can almost hear director Chris Hoyle relishing the task of allowing the show to stay busy and in your face.
For such a small production the set (Irene Jade) is bursting with life, with multi-coloured boxes, a bench, a duvet, a clothes rail, screens, a gin bottle, a mic stand, a heart balloon and clothing among the items strewn around the stage. Some items, such as a tissue and LED tealights, are even handed to the audience, who are never merely spectators, but friends and confidants.
Lighting (Joel Clements) is also a crucial part of the performance, with the sort of fast cues and directed spots of which a major West End production would be envious.
Hall allows what must for many in the audience be an unfamiliar journey to be shared frankly. His mantra is “what a mess!” yet it is all too clear that he has made something of it, he has survived and he wants to inform others about it as well as paying tribute to the individuals that have helped him through.
It is not a comfortable journey but it is a road that needs to be travelled and with any luck will give assurance and confidence to others walking a similar path. Alongside the laugh-out-loud moments (including a female audience member being dragged onto the stage to recreate his Prom Night dance with the head girl) Hall is in earnest as he speaks of the depression, the brushes with death, the homophobic abuse, the self-loathing, the ineffective drugs and above all the pain of trying to tell his family the truth about being HIV +.
The latter is a recurring theme, finally to be laid to rest when the contents of the four envelopes (labelled H O P and E) which hang above the stage are unpegged and when the audience opens envelopes given to them when they leave.
The performance is never “just another festival show about being gay or having HIV.” In its way First Time is every bit as important and well-written and played as gay-themed dramas such as The Normal Heart, Angels in America and Rent. More than that Hall performs with such affable assurance and courage that he must surely be a name to be reckoned with in theatre beyond five star confessional solo shows.
The production is touring the UK in the next few months and needs to be seen and appreciated by as many as possible.
A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/