First Time, The Pleasance review – ‘Eclectic cabaret-dramedy on a mission to combat stigma’
★★★★☆ by Ifan Llewelyn
For many gay men, their ‘first time’ is far removed from the narratives fed to us by today’s glossy Hollywood movies. Often they’re awkward, uncomfortable, and perhaps even inappropriate. This seems to be true for theatre-maker Nathaniel Hall (It’s a Sin, Cucumber), and while we’re told we’ll never forget our first time, he certainly won’t. Hilarious and heartbreaking and equal measure, First Time (presented by Dibby Theatre) is an eclectic cabaret-dramedy that explores his story of contracting HIV with his first sexual partner – from fallout to acceptance and through to his commitment to fighting stigma.
We’re introduced to a party-lagged Nathaniel in 2017 who’s trying to gather his faculties the morning after a few mornings after. In a suitably bedraggled bathrobe meets fanny pack getup, he reaches into a baggy of white powder to muster the energy to recount his story. What follows is a patchwork of scenes, spoken word, a game show, and even some audience participation, each casting a different light on experiencing life as someone who is positive in a negative world. Each intimate episode travels deeper into the complexities of living with HIV, from discomfort to disclosure.
A surprising highlight comes at the moment of his diagnosis, where NHS healthcare worker Sue is brought to life by way of a lanyard and a hideous wig. “I’ve just gone arse over tit in the lube cupboard” she exclaims, just before breaking the hardest news 16-year-old Nathaniel has ever had to hear. She appears throughout the piece as a shorthand for all the no-nonsense nurses that have supported people living with HIV over the years. Through her, Nathaniel expresses gratitude to a healthcare system that has supported him on his journey to becoming undetectable.
While painting a compelling portrait of his life, the performance also does important work to educate its audience. Those more familiar with the issues surrounding HIV may roll their eyes at a quiz about “Which way are you more likely to contract HIV?”, but those who are unfamiliar can learn a lot and enjoy the experience of shouting “I love orgies” in an Islington theatre. It’s astoundingly rare to hear the experience of someone living with HIV today, so it’s no wonder that so many have no idea what U=U may mean. For them, the virus is a story of the 80s and a crisis, which is why this show has the potential to be truly refreshing were it to stay telling Nathaniel’s story.
This autobiographical, Brechtian variety show is an evening of theatre you won’t soon forget, especially due to a touching memento you leave with. Some of its platitudes may not be to everyone’s taste, but with a subject so weighty, a little levity goes a long way. Sentimentality can be comforting, and cynicism gives way to embracing a little schmaltz. To quote some of First Time’s closing lines: often “It’s f**king cheesy, but it’s true.”
First Time is playing at The Pleasance, N7 until Sunday, 13th February 2022 before touring the UK. Tickets are available to purchase HERE.
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