BWW Review: GERM FREE ADOLESCENT, The Bunker
Germ Free Adolescent centres on Ashley, a teenage girl with OCD. Developing an obsession with STIs, Ashley collects sexual health leaflets and offers an advice clinic at school. As she reels off numerous statistics, her peers assume she's highly experienced with sex, but in fact it's the polar opposite. When boyfriend Ollie invites her over, Ashley is of course nervous, however behind the laddish exterior, Ollie is also a virgin.
It's not a wholly original story, however writer Natalie Mitchell succeeds in making it an interesting one. Mitchell is well practiced in capturing teenage voices through her work on the television series Ackley Bridge, and it's her dynamic dialogue and well-developed, relatable characters that anchor this play.
As the audience enter, we find Ashley (Francesca Henry) and Ollie (Jake Richards) seated on stage, sharing earphones as they listen to music. We instantly know these are teenagers, and both actors sustain their awkward body language, mannerisms and use of voice throughout to convincingly capture the age of their characters.
Direct address is used for the majority of the play, with the characters on stage together but not interacting until the climax. This works well with Mitchell's sharp and snappy dialogue allowing the characters to bounce off one another, which makes for a fast pace.
Francesca Henry immediately invites us into her world as Ashley. Radiating the nerves and trepidation surrounding sex, she also injects a degree of confidence into the character, which prevents her from ever appearing as a victim of her disorder. It's a detailed and sensitive performance that's both moving and at times slightly comical.
Jake Richards is well cast as Ollie. His delivery allows the character to be endearing and often humorous; however, the actor ensures the darker undertones of Ollie are not ignored. Both actors are engaging to watch and have strong onstage chemistry, which is effectively harnessed by Grace Gummer's direction.
Nicola Chang's sound design offers a pulsating background drone that works well in drawing us into the world of teenage angst that Mitchell has established.
Lizzy Leech's simple set consists of three stripes of different wallpaper and flooring, echoing Ashley's OCD, and the use of Heather Pasfield's projection design to display a word Ashley always spells out when needing to calm herself down is a nice touch. Sherry Coenen's lighting design also works well in reflecting the various moods of the piece, transitioning from stark to soft accordingly.
The play addresses important themes. Mental health, especially in young people, is a prevalent topic of conversation. The fact that Mitchell herself has OCD lends an authenticity to the work, which avoids and even confronts stereotypes surrounding the condition. Extensive research was also conducted with young people, school councillors and mental health services offering advice and guidance.
The issue of consent is addressed in a very realistic and believable way. Gender politics is also quite rightly a hot topic at present and it is touched upon here, however it's a shame that Ollie's idea of masculinity and the privileges it allows is not further explored.
Like all good writers, Mitchell comes in late and leaves early, offering us a succinct story told economically. At just 50 minutes though, it does feel a little short, and in some ways like Ashley and Ollie's journeys are incomplete. That said, this is a pacy play which shines a light on important subjects whilst entertaining us with its character-driven humour.
Make the most of this venue and the new writing it has on offer, as sadly The Bunker will be closing its doors early next year.
Photo credit: Natalie Mitchell