I’m well known to gather leaflets wherever I can, particularly ones in the entrance of a theatre before a show begins. But in ‘Germ Free Adolescent’, sixteen-year old Ashley puts my leaflet gathering abilities to shame. She has meticulously gathered four of each STD related leaflet that she owns and has learnt all that there is to know about sexually transmitted infections. T is for Thrush, C is for Chlamydia and recently the largest proportional increase in chlamydia diagnoses came in the over 65 age group (who would have thought?).
Thanks to her enterprising friend Tracey, Ashley has set up a clinic at school and shares her knowledge for a fee so that she can also educate her peers. But it soon becomes apparent that Ashley’s knowledge gathering isn’t out of intellectual curiosity but a manifestation of her Obsessive compulsive disorder. As the play progresses, we see how her OCD impacts her life in troubling ways. She has anxieties about being intimate with her boyfriend Ollie. Also in these tense moments, she struggles to find release unless she repeatedly spells out the word Kristallnacht.
The one act play is deeply personal and relatable. It’s ground in a time of our lives during ‘the teen years’ which we should all be painfully familiar with, where there’s drama in the school cafeteria and when problems can feel so much more amplified than they actually are. The interesting dimension with this show of course is that this experience is seen through the lens of a young girl who has OCD.
After seeing one too many shows recently which feel stunted and under-developed, I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as you ease into this one which is anything but those things. In Natalie Mitchell’s writing, she has vividly captured these adolescent experiences in a believable and engaging way. Director, Grace Gummer, has taken this personal story and without distractions welcomes you into Ashley’s world.
Ashley is sensitively portrayed by Francesca Henry, who delivers a heartfelt and moving performance. Ashley’s boyfriend, Ollie, is performed by Jake Richards who provides light-hearted comic relief as a naïve teenage lad. Although the problems and the insecurities that Ollie contends with don’t seem so severe in comparison to Ashley’s, his confusion and attempt to navigate his emotions is a strange mix of endearing and concerning.
Lizzy Leech’s stage design in the Bunker Theatre is also compelling. The space is sliced into four sections which are distinct yet similar in tone. Our central pair will often talk about one another from the separate sections of the space but towards the audience rather than directly to each other. It heightens that feeling that they are not quite on the same page.
As I leave the theatre after seeing ‘Germ Free Adolescent’, I realise that the Burrell Street Sexual Health Clinic is nearby. It’s a curious coincidence. A show about losing your virginity and teen apprehension around catching STDs happens to be staged in very close proximity to the place where I worried about the puzzling world of sex and STDs as a teen. In that moment, vivid memories of collecting any kind of leaflet that I could about all that sex stuff washed over me. It was then that I was taken a back and fully appreciated how much resonance this show had with me and how much it should connect with others too.
Germ Free Adolescent is running at the Bunker Theatre between 29th October and 9th November 2019 at the time of writing.
Photo Credit: Sam Wainwright