How did you come up with the idea for First Time?
In 2017 I had a bit of a mental breakdown. I thought I was living my best queer life: partying, sex, alcohol, drugs. All fun things if you're pursuing them for fun, not so much if you're doing them to mask pain.
I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 16 after my first sexual encounter and I kept the diagnosis a secret from almost everyone including my family for over fifteen years. I realised that the trauma of what had happened to me had been plaguing my life this whole time and that I needed to do something radical to escape the pain and the shame.
So I decided to write First Time - it was a real journey! I discovered some things about my past that were uncomfortable and painful to come to terms with, but ultimately it was cathartic. I discovered lots of joy in my past and story along the way too.
The show premiered in 2018 at Waterside Arts in Greater Manchester amongst a whirlwind of media coverage. It was crazy - I was trending higher than Jennifer Aniston's bangs on BuzzFeed and sitting next to Charlie and Naga on the BBC Breakfast couch.
Audience and critical reception to the show blew me away, so we took it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 - it won two awards and a strong of five and four star reviews. It was overwhelming. But the most humbling part has been all the messages I get (from all over the world) saying my story has helped someone else - those messages make all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile!
Will it tour again?
The show was on a UK tour at the beginning of 2020 - thankfully our last date was just before the pandemic hit.
We're working to build another UK tour in Autumn 2021 - there's a lot of challenges getting live theatre back up and running, but we're hopeful!
How has the coronavirus affected your life?
I moved back in with my parents in September 2019, what a canny move that was!
I'm very fortunate really - I'm not paying rent and I get to spend time reconnecting with my parents and make up for all the lost time where I felt disconnected from them because I was hiding my HIV diagnosis.
I suffer from PTSD and an anxiety disorder, so the current state of the world has contributed to a few flare-ups of that, but I have good people around me and a great therapist.
Oh, and I found a gorgeous new boyfriend last summer, so 2020 really wasn't all bad!
Tell us about It's a sin
Where do I start?!
It's a phenomenal piece of drama, the first to really grapple with the HIV/AIDs crisis on British TV. Russell did extensive research into real stories and of course, he lived through the epidemic as a young gay man himself. It is a work of fiction, but the characters and storylines have been inspired by this research and it shows... it feels very real.
The series begins in 1981 as a group of fresh-faced young adults move to London to find fame, fortune and love. But as the decade progresses, the growing spectre of AIDS impacts all their lives. Of course, HIV doesn't only affect gay men, but this show very much focuses on that experience.
It's a Russell T Davies piece, so expect plenty of laughs amongst the drama... oh and plenty of sexiness too. It's a real celebration of living and loving through a pandemic - very timely given the current situation. It was an honour to be involved in such a landmark production.
You star opposite Ollie from Years and Years how was he to work with?
When I saw the line-up for the cast, I was in awe... I'm just a kid from Stockport and I'm in this thing with Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick-Harris and Keeley Hawes... and Olly! I couldn't believe it.
Working with Olly was a dream - I was nervous at first because I'm a big Years and Years fan, but you soon realise the 'celeb' is just a person like you with the same hopes and dreams and anxieties.
He plays a blinder in this series (the entire cast does) and our scenes were fairly, how do I put it... intimate? But we had plenty of support from Intimacy coordinators on set who help you build trust together with your scene partner.
I learned so much about my craft doing this job (my first major telly role) and made so many great new friends too.
Do you think it represents the time it is set in well?
I was born in 1986 which is the year which the episode I appear in is set!
The production team did an amazing job of recreating the era in such a painstakingly faithful manner (even my watch would be set to the correct time for the scene being shot).
Sometimes the 1980's can be packaged up and re-sold back to us as all leg-warmers and ra-ra skirts, but the world they created avoids that - it looks and sounds and feels like a snapshot in time - the recreation of places like Heaven Nightclub are insane!
But what really struck me about the whole production, is the focus on the quiet domesticity of Middle England - the secrecy and the shame of it all. Boys 'disappearing' from the big city for secret burials, deaths from 'cancer', partners denied access to their lover's funerals.
The show is a very British telling of the story... we do see the fight, the activism, the struggle, the injustice... but mostly we see people just like you and me trying to navigate life in such terrifying circumstances.
What would be your dream role?
Oh gosh, that's a real tough question!
I'm a big advocate for more LGBTQ+ roles on screen - both dramas that deal with our lived experience as well as just characters who just happen to be LGBTQ. There's a bit of default setting in casting at the minute - unless a writer specifies gender or sexual identity in the script, it tends to be white, cis-gendered, able bodied people who get the part.
I want casting directors to begin to diversify this - lets have a beautiful butch lesbian GP in Doctors or a gorgeous non-binary Police Officer in Silent Witness!
I'd love to take my show First Time and turn it into something for telly - maybe I'll be the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge... who knows?
What are your plans for 2021?
My theatre company Dibby Theatre is growing and expanding. My Co-Artistic Director Chris Hoyle is leading a fantastic new writing course for LGBTQ+ writers in Greater Manchester, I'm delivering an outreach project tackling HIV stigma and shame, First Time is going back on tour and I'm developing my next show as well... so not very much really... oh, and I'm in that queue waiting for the vaccine so I can hug my friends, go out dancing, go on holiday and do a million and one other things we're all missing so much right now.