Review: Germ Free Adolescent
Image courtesy The Bunker and Epsilon Productions
Francesca Henry - Ashley
Jake Richards - Ollie
Ashley is 16.
She's lived in Medway for 15 years and 6 months.
She has 2,354 leaflets on sexual health.
She knows exactly how many she has, because she's counted them 1,582 times …
At 7.48pm tonight, she will have been going out with Ollie for exactly 3 months, which he thinks means it's time to take their relationship to the next level; especially given her position as their school's resident expert on sexual health.
But what if counting leaflets can't protect Ashley from getting hurt when she decides to take her biggest risk yet?
Germ Free Adolescent is an OCD love story that asks: what exactly is 'normal' anyway …?
1 in 10 young people experience a mental health problem, but how do you go about discussing this with your first boyfriend or girlfriend?
Fierce and funny, serious and irreverent - this play will resonate with anyone who's ever worried they're not "normal."
Written by Natalie Mitchell, the play draws on her own mental health experiences, and the painful yet often funny stories collected during an extensive research and development process with young people, youth workers, and Mental Health Services across Medway in Kent during 2014 and 2015.
Unless you know someone with the condition, you may not have a detailed understanding of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Though many of us may have a vague notion of the nature of this mental illness - which compels a person to perform certain routines or to experience thoughts repeatedly - the general public's appreciation of OCD is likely, I suspect, to be cursory at best.
In matters of this kind, drama can prove illuminating not only in describing a condition but also allowing us to consider wider effects and more subtle implications.
And that's significant in Natalie Mitchell's play, which turns out not to be so much of an exposé of what OCD actually is, but rather examines its plaintive impact on the personal development and daily life of one young sufferer.
Sixteen year-old Ashley has developed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of sexual ailments, to the extent that she is consulted by her school peers for diagnosis and cures.
She has a massive collection of leaflets and she's a regular contributor on a forum about sexual health and sexually transmitted infections.
Ashley's obsessive interest in this (somewhat lurid) area of medical knowledge is a reflection of what is happening inside her head.
But her friends don't know about her compulsive psychological anxiety and the condition which manifests it.
In particular, her boyfriend Ollie is blissfully unaware of what his girlfriend is experiencing.
And that lack of knowledge and understanding is leading to a potential explosive situation since Ollie believes their relationship is on the brink of an exciting new phase.
Natalie Mitchell's tightly-written script nevertheless packs an enormous amount into the relatively short running time.
The script provides a perfectly authentic and wholly credible medium to deliver insights into Ashley's psychological status but also allows us to compare her 'unseen' illness with a physical condition which impacts Ollie's confidence - but in a very different way.
And that's particularly important since it provides a clear distinction between the visibility of a physical impairment with the hidden nature of a psychological illness.
For the most part, the play consists of two separate, alternating monologues with the actors directly addressing the audience.
This effective technique allows us to hear the thoughts of both characters so that we can start to piece together what is happening to both of them.
That also keeps the characters in separate bubbles until the closing moments when intensifying circumstances eventually enable them to talk to each other.
Francesca Henry (Ashley) and Jake Richards (Ollie) deliver finely-crafted and well-contrasted performances providing both humorous and more highly charged moments.
There's also much to admire in Grace Gummer's particularly effective direction which manages to allow the actors ample room to define their characters but also injects significant vitality and creative subtlety into the piece.
The Bunker's generous stage space is used to great effect, and there's a first-rate soundscape from designer Nicola Chang that appropriately underscores the piece, progressing from an almost imperceptible hum that builds in line with Ashley's anxiety and Ollie's excitement and, later, anger.
In an otherwise compelling and hugely watchable production, the last few seconds felt a touch inappropriate given everything which had gone before, since it left us with an almost fairy-tale ending of everything being speedily and happily resolved - which, in reality, is unlikely.
That minor critical quibble aside, Germ Free Adolescent is highly recommended.
Prior to this performance of Germ Free Adolescent, a group of young actors from Icon Theatre (based in Chatham) gave us their interesting and sometimes humorous interpretation of the theme of 'bravery' in a 15 minute ensemble performance.
Given recent demonstrations by young people around the globe, it's perhaps unsurprising that the team opted to focus on the urgent issue of climate change, giving us their take on matters they are obviously and properly concerned about.
This curtain raiser concept is inspired, providing a vehicle for young theatre makers to demonstrate their developing talents in a professional setting and allowing the audience to appreciate their skills and keep in touch with their concerns.
Icon Theatre rose to the considerable challenge with entertaining assurance - good stuff!
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for The Bunker
Our show listing for Germ Free Adolescent
Read our reviews' policy