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‘First Time’ by Nathaniel Hall: Book Review

The only way to rid yourself of shame is to walk towards the fear that causes it”

P.65, ‘First Time’, Nathaniel Hall

As I am writing this, it is HIV testing week 2022 (7th – 13th February). Of course, the main point of HIV testing week is to encourage people to get tested for HIV, but it is also the perfect opportunity to learn more about this heavily stigmatised and misunderstood virus. In this spirit, I decided to revisit Nathaniel Hall’s book ‘First Time’, a printed full script for his stage show of the same name.

You probably know Nathaniel Hall as Donald Bassett from Russel T Davies’ ‘It’s a Sin’, a heartbreaking retelling of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1980’S London. The drama aired just over a year ago (22nd January 2021) and became Channel 4’s most-watched series ever. I celebrated Nathaniel Hall in my review of ‘It’s a Sin’ last February, citing him as one of my four reasons to watch the show, and I am just as inspired by him a year on.

First Time:

I was diagnosed with HIV aged sixteen, but it was the stigma and shame, not the virus, that led me to breaking point”

Page XII in ‘Introduction’ of ‘First Time’

Hall contracted HIV during his first-ever sexual experience at only 16 years old. Hall recounts the moment he met Will Young lookalike Sam, an older and “visibly gay” man (p. 16) whilst sitting on a bench “overlooking the shopping precinct to the M60 beyond” (p. 13). This was in June 2003 whilst Nathaniel was waiting for his cream prom tuxedo to arrive at the hire shop. Being only 16 and unable to go to prom with the deputy head boy like he wished to, Nathaniel was understandably excited by “a gay man, being really f*cking gay… in Stockport!” (p. 15).

“In front of the neon triangle is a park bench with a park bin next to it” (p. 2)

Whilst ‘First Time’ is a one-man show, there is a neon triangle that shares the stage with Nathaniel and becomes a character of its own. The triangle starts off pink, a nod to the triangle used to identify gay men by the Nazis and later reclaimed by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) activists (p.2), but it changes colour throughout the show to depict the tone.

For example, when Nathaniel returns to the bench where he met Sam after his prom night, the triangle is a dark blue colour (p. 21). This could of course just symbolise the night of his first time or maybe it sets the mood of the “best summer of his life” taking a dark turn. After all, he does later describe being a child in a very adult world (p. 27).

Afterwards, during his 2003 family holiday in Menorca, the triangle is a “deep evening sunset orange” (p. 22), reminiscent of the nights he spent partying with his mum. However, it’s not long before the triangle “strobes bright white light like a flickering striplight in a horror film” (p. 29) as we watch Nathaniel relive his diagnosis of HIV.

Later, the triangle turns “bright white like overhead headlights” (p. 37) as we sense some hope as Nathaniel attends the George House Trust support group in Manchester 2010 (seven years after his diagnosis). Nathaniel also started going into schools with the trust to educate on HIV, at this point in the show he pulls the audience into a theatrical version of an educational game he plays whilst volunteering. He uses this game to emphasise how “two thirds of all new infections come from people who don’t know their HIV status” (p. 39).

During the game Nathaniel emphasises something that is very unknown about HIV, that being “undetectable = untransmittable” (p. 41). This means that if someone is on effective treatment for HIV, their viral load can become so low that it is undetectable. This means the “risk of transmission is reduced by 100%” (p. 41), much safer than having sex with someone who does not know their HIV status.

“Where HIV is concerned, I’m the safest person you could be having sex with” (p. 41)

This is the part of the show, and book, where we really learn what a diagnosis of HIV means today. Nathaniel fearlessly breaks down stigma surrounding the virus. When Nathaniel was first diagnosed at 16, he was given a life expectancy of just another 37 years, however with the treatment available today, he can expect to live to be as “old and decrepit as everyone else” (p. 65).

There is even a drug now, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), that reduces the risk of contracting HIV when having sex by 99% if taken as prescribed. It also reduces the risk of contracting HIV in those who inject drugs by 74% if taken consistently. PrEP is now available for free via the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales (introduction, xii). Despite the prognosis of HIV changing, the attitudes towards it have not.

I want to draw attention again to one of the most important points of this book:

“It was the stigma and shame, not the virus, that led me to breaking point” (Introduction, page xii)

Whilst exiting the auditorium after Nathaniel’s show, each audience member is handed a copy of the letter that Hall used to come out to his family about his HIV status 15 years after he was first diagnosed.  It is an honour to be let into such a pivotal moment in his life, and we are reminded one last time just how committed Nathaniel is to tackling the stigma surrounding HIV. He speaks of the men and women who have changed what it means to have HIV in the letter, and it feels like a real full-circle moment as Nathaniel is doing the same thing now.

Words by: Alice Colton

Edited by: Tamikka Reid

Philosophy student from the University of Leeds who watches way too much 'teen TV'. HC Leeds president 2020/21 <3  Read more on my blog: https://alicecolton.wixsite.com/website
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