In the summer of 2017, a couple of months after a general election that saw the Conservative party lose their majority, NHS England launched an implementation trial of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). The pioneering drug significantly reduces the risk of contracting HIV, which, combined with increasingly effective treatments for the virus, enables HIV+ people to safely have sex with HIV- partners.
It is from within this landscape that Toxic, Dibby Theatre’s new play by First Time writer and It’s a Sin star Nathaniel J. Hall, unfurls across 80 entrancing minutes. Two thirty-somethings meet at a warehouse party in Manchester: the Playwright (Hall) and the Performer (Josh-Susan Enright). What follows is the tale of a relationship that gradually falls to pieces.
The Playwright grew up suffocated by homophobia and was diagnosed with HIV as a teenager – a fact of which his parents are still unaware. The Performer is mixed race and non-binary and struggles to find where they belong between whiteness and Blackness, masculinity and femininity, and parents who carry substantial baggage of their own.
These monikers tell you much about the play: it is metafictional, with poetic, moving and often very funny asides throughout; and it is both anonymous and, in drawing the characters’ lives with incredible detail over its brief running time, deeply personal.
But it is also deliberately misleading – Hall is, of course, a performer too. This tension between what characters say and what the audience is left to observe underlie the narrative, which is, Hall tells us in its opening minutes, a story about falling in love and fucking it up.
The last few years have seen the publication of several books on domestic abuse within the LGBTQ+ community that blur fiction and reality, notably Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (2019) and Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X (2023). Toxic takes its place among these ranks – but, Hall is keen to emphasise, it is, although partly autobiographical, “not a piece of revenge art against [his] ex.”
Instead, it is incredibly empathetic, searching for the roots of shameful behaviour within a community that places such high value on pride. Hall reveals himself here as a master of his craft, forcing the audience to question the extent to which their interpretation of certain behaviours is dependent on what they know about the person enacting them.
The creative direction, led by Scott Le Crass, involves limited props and costumes, innovative lighting effects and a soundtrack of perfectly chosen songs providing the backdrop to the full course of the characters’ relationship. In its most heightened moments, it is immensely claustrophobic – one particular scene inspired an entire room of tensed shoulders.
But this is not a pessimistic play. It is a celebration of life in all complexity, with all its attendant suffering, in the knowledge that before and beyond and alongside that pain lies all the things that make it worth living. Here, the restricted space feels less like entrapment and more like intimacy – which is, really, the point.
Toxic was inspired by Hall’s research into the prevalence of mental ill health and abuse in the LGBTQ+ community and delves into the specifics of these issues with impressive depth given its brevity. But it also about the situations that many of us find ourselves in – something that feels wonderful, until it doesn’t.
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