REVIEW: Germ Free Adolescent, Epsilon Productions (The Bunker)

Mummy has heard a lot about The Bunker Theatre this week. For the past three and a half years, this former underground car park has been the home of inclusive and affordable theatre that offers opportunities to artists and creatives from diverse backgrounds. All the praise it has been receiving is bittersweet, coming off the back of the news that it will be closing in early 2020. But the announcement has been made with pride at what has been achieved in this short time, and the legacy that it will leave. Hearing the news, Mummy couldn’t believe that she had never actually been to The Bunker. But coincidentally she had already been booked in to review the opening of a new play there on Halloween. So after sending Mrs Mummy off trick or treating with the munchkins, Mummy headed to London Bridge to see what all the fuss was about.

Written by Natalie Mitchell, Germ Free Adolescent is a very personal piece which draws on her own experiences of treatment for OCD, as well as the painful yet often funny stories collected during an extensive research and development process with young people, school councillors, and Mental Health Services. Set in Medway, it aims to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre, authentically reflecting the experiences of working class people on stage whilst (in Mitchell’s words) “also being a fucking brilliant piece of art”. If that last line offends you, this probably isn’t the play for you. But if you appreciate appropriately-placed profanity and dark humour then make sure you get yourself to The Bunker in the next couple of weeks, to catch this very human story about battling with your own mind.

The story revolves around the relationship between 16 year olds Ashley (Francesca Henry) and Ollie (Jake Richards). They’ve been dating for three months and are due to take their relationship to the next level tonight. It’s OCD-sufferer Ashley’s first time and she’s terrified of what might happen. It’s taken ages for her just to get used to kissing, and that’s fine now, but what if she can’t go further? She can’t let Ollie know. No-one can know that she isn’t normal. Ollie’s terrified too. This is his longest relationship by far, and tonight has to be special. As the school’s resident expert on sexual health, Ashley must have tons of experience. Whereas Ollie has only done it three times. And he doesn’t like to think about two of them. In fact, he’s not even sure that one of them counts. But he’s determined to make tonight perfect. He’s done everything right. He’s sent her flowers, cooked her dinner and been nothing but respectful. Why would Ashley not want him?

Jake Richards and Francesca Henry in Germ Free Adolescent. Copyright Sam Wainwright.

Though the two actors are on stage together throughout, they rarely interact directly. Because the real action takes place in their minds and is addressed to the audience through a series of monologues. Between them they tell the story of the build-up to the big event, the night itself and its aftermath. We see Ashley’s uncertainty as she struggles to control the intrusive thoughts caused by her OCD. We hear her darkest fears and see the rituals she must go through to try and make herself appear normal. We hear Ollie’s own insecurities about a leg deformity and his fears that Ashley won’t want him if she sees it. We see him second guess his every move as he tries to make the night perfect, and the pain he feels as it all goes wrong. We see and hear it all. The problem is that they don’t. And as the action unfolds, their fear of revealing their feelings leads to unexpected and painful consequences. Until eventually they both brave their demons, turn to interact with each other, and discover how it feels to share your secrets.

Germ Free Adolescent is a brilliantly clever play, which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different. The writing is powerful, weaving sharp doses of humour into a hard-hitting topic. From Ollie’s worries about chicken kiev and chips to Ashley’s desperate attempts to ground herself by repeatedly spelling out ‘Kristallnacht’ (which I have just googled to double-check, despite the number of times I heard and saw it spelled last night!) it is funny and very human.

Francesca Henry Jake Richards in Germ Free Adolescent. Copyright Sam Wainwright.

Mitchell’s writing is brought to life by Grace Gummer’s clever direction and Lizzy Leech’s simple but effective set design, which uses shades of grey to complement the themes of ambiguity and bleakness with some flickers of sterile white hinting at Ashley’s health-based fears. This is echoed by lighting and projections by Sherry Coenen and Heather Pasfield. It is all delivered believably by the two incredible actors. As Ollie, Jake Richards convincingly plays a Medway teenager struggling to hide his fragility beneath a laddish exterior. He connects with every member of the audience, addressing his questions and commentary directly to individuals. You can’t help but empathise with him, even when his actions are shocking. Francesca Henry’s Ashley is just as real, authentically portraying the panic that she feels inside while she struggles to convince the rest of the world that she is just a normal teenager.

Germ Free Adolescent achieves exactly what it sets out to do, authentically bringing real life stories to the stage in an entertaining and inspiring way. Over in a single act (like Ashley and Ollie’s relationship?) this thought-provoking play is well worth a trip to The Bunker. Make the most of it while it’s still there.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Germ Free Adolescent plays at The Bunker from 29 October to 9 November 2019. (Evening performances at 7.30pm. Saturday matinee at 3pm.) There will be Relaxed Performances on Sat 2 November at 3pm and Wed 6th November at 7.30pm.

Age Guidance: 14+