The Bunker – until 9 November 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Germ Free Adolescent is a striking illustration of the gaping hole The Bunker will leave in the theatrical landscape when it closes next year. Natalie Mitchell’s two-hander was developed with y young people, youth workers and mental health services in Kent, resulting in an engaging and accessible glimpse at teenagers and their problems that will actually appeal and connect with younger audiences without alienating older people.
Sixteen-year-old Ashley (Francesca Henry) has been going pout with Ollie (Jake Richards) for three months, and tonight is the night they will take things to the next level. They are both nervous, for different reasons – Ashley has OCD, which she tries to mask by running an unofficial sexual health clinic at school using the facts she has memorised from her vast collection of leaflets about the diseases she is terrified of catching. Trying to convince herself that it will be alright, she goes to Ollie’s house for their big night. She is unaware that Ollie has his own body image issues that have coloured his past encounters with girls and is a bundle of nerves too.
The two characters never talk to each other, instead two interweaving monologues, expertly timed and delivered, are used to portray this bittersweet comedy of errors and misunderstandings. Director Grace Gummer has the actors moving around Lizzy Leech’s minimalist set in a way that effortlessly creates a sense of place. The dialogue is fast and fierce, with speech patterns that are instantly recognisable to parents of teenagers. Henry and Richards inhabit their characters brilliantly, endearing and frustrating in equal measure, you can’t help rooting for these two to find a way through the mess they’re in. Richards is hilarious as Ollie, a roiling mess of a man-child with his sweet sensitive instincts overwhelmed by the male stereotype that he feels he needs to live up to. He spouts some vile stuff at and about Ashley, which drew despairing laughter from older audience members and gasps and winces from the younger audience. Henry is wonderful as Ashley, naively cocky when she feels safe and comfortable and creating deeply uncomfortable moments when she goes through her coping mechanisms.
Ollie’s actions are deplorable as the play goes on, but you never lose the sense that there is hope for this young man if he surrounds himself with the right people, and Ashley’s realisation that she doesn’t have to hide who she is wraps things up neatly. This could feel contrived, but the characters are so easy to invest in that an optimistic upbeat ending is exactly what they deserve. Topical, funny and charming – well worth a look.