Ahead of acclaimed theatre show ‘First Time’ returning to London this month, writer and lead actor Nathanial Hall looks back on the events that inspired the script
Can you remember your first time? Maybe you cringe at the awkwardness of it all or maybe you came out with a total bang.
I met my first time on a bench in 2003 when I was a closeted sixteen-year-old. He was in his mid-twenties, but he was everything I dreamed of becoming – confident, stylish, fashionable. We began dating. He was so sweet, and my age wasn’t an issue to him, although looking back I think it should have been.
Eventually, it came to my first time. He took out a safer sex pack, but just took the lube. I challenged him. I may have been a Section 28 kid (repealed that very same year), but I wasn’t stupid.
“I’ve just been tested. A clean bill of sexual health.”
And I believed him. My fate was sealed. Fast-forward three months and I’m sitting in the GUM clinic waiting room at the hospital. Another first time in many of our lives, just one I’d not expected to happen so soon.
The doctor at the clinic knew straight off. I bore all the signs: a nasty two-week bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, swollen glands, weight loss, and a whole host of other STIs. But I refused the big test. I didn’t want to believe it. I was a straight-A student, I had been Head Boy at my school, and I was from Cheadle, for Christ’s sake. People like me didn’t get HIV.
I was scared, drowning in the shame of it all. The doctor insisted I take the test. I refused. But knowing where untreated HIV would lead, he called me back to the clinic and insisted. This doctor, on the cusp of retirement, had lived to see the suffering HIV had inflicted on so many young men that came before me. And he knew that I could inflict this on others if I didn’t get tested. He called me back to the clinic again and gently insisted. I’m forever grateful to that doctor. Without him, I most certainly wouldn’t be alive today.
But you know, despite the trauma of that first time, I’m not just ‘living’ with HIV today. I’m ‘thriving’ with it. In 2021, I was proud to join the cast of It’s A Sin as the only openly HIV+ person in the cast. The TV show came at a pivotal moment for me. In the years following my diagnosis, self-stigma plagued my life. My family didn’t know, and the trauma of my past had led me into toxic relationships and to drink and drugs.
But in 2017 I decided to rid myself of my internalised shame about being gay and HIV+ through my solo stage show First Time, and I’ve not looked back since.
Now First Time is coming to The Pleasance in London during National HIV Testing Week and I’m thrilled to be supporting Terrence Higgins Trust when we visit. Testing for HIV today is a far cry from the agonising two-week wait of the past. Home testing kits can give a result in minutes. And regular HIV testing, alongside effective treatment and PrEP, are the tools that will help us end HIV for good.
So, this testing week, I’d like you to do two things: book an HIV test and book a ticket to see my show (hey, a girl’s gotta hustle when she can). And if that test comes back positive, know that you’re not alone. There are thousands of people living happily with HIV. Just look at me: from alcohol and drug-fuelled rock bottom to loud and proud actor and activist in just a few years. Shame just doesn’t get a look in anymore.
Follow Nathaniel on Instagram @NathanielJHall
First Time, Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th February (7.30pm each night, except 5pm on Sunday), The Pleasance, Carpenters Mews, North Road, N7 9EF, tickets from www.pleasance.co.uk
National HIV Testing Week is this week. Book a home test kit at www.startswithme.org.uk