IN BRIEF Two colliding monologues speak volumes about teenage pressures in an effective production

Ashley is sixteen and the school expert on sexual health. It’s just that…she hasn’t actually…you know…yet. One of the reasons is because she has a big secret that she just can’t share – “No one gets it because it’s mental”. Three months into her relationship with Ollie it’s time to take it to the next level, “the big night”, which is causing a lot of stress for both of them. Not that they’d talk to each other about that.

In what is essentially two parallel monologues delivered directly to the audience, Natalie Mitchell’s refreshing and authentic-sounding play highlights the internal and external pressures teenagers feel to be “normal” during one of the most challenging developmental times of their lives.

Laddish Ollie piles the pressure on; “It needs to be perfect” he tells himself- and us. After the sweet idea of arranging roses for Ashley he checks himself: “I don’t know if she likes them- should I have asked?”. Ashley is feeling similar stress, relying on mindful spelling and familiar rituals to calm her agitation and uncertainty. Unsupported by her parents, Ashley falls back on her counting and spelling rituals to get her through. The fallout from “the big night” propels the play to its conclusion in ways which are sometimes easy to forecast but no less skilful in the telling. The lack of developed communication skills produces binary readings of events, leading to immature, uncomfortably sexist outbursts which complicate the way forward, but the final understanding that is reached is well worth the journey. By the play’s close, when the characters finally start talking to each other, we feel that both characters have “grown up” in a partial but significant way.

Mitchell’s writing is eloquent about describing OCD and how it can affect people, which makes the final breakthrough even more satisfying, even though the breakthrough suggests a start in dealing with a years-long disorder, it’s still optimistic. There is a lovely, sly sense of humour in the writing, and some wincingly acute references (Ollie’s mum and dad are off out to a “ska tribute band in Gillingham”). The fluidity of the performances and direction (by Grace Gummer) keep the piece moving along naturally and believably. Francesca Henry as Ashley gives a completely convincing performance of someone with OCD in all their complexity, conveying that pit-of-the stomach feeling of unease which arouses our empathy, and her later bravery in breaking her silence is full of hope. Jake Richards as Ollie gives an assured yet nuanced performance- laddish, confident on the outside, but inside still boyish, unsure and unsettled by his own perceived “difference”. Both are highly watchable and fully held the audience’s attention for the 60-minute running time.

As an illustration of the bravery of trying to be yourself, and not what you feel you should be to fit in, GERM FREE ADOLESCENT is a useful and significant play that all audiences can relate to. As Ashley says, “We’re all normal – just in different ways.” This show deserves more attention and another, longer, run.

GERM FREE ADOLESCENT ran at the Bunker Theatre until November 9th

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