Press night for Germ Free Adolescent came the day after The Bunker announced that it will have to leave its site on Southwark Street in early 2020. Germ Free Adolescent was programmed after a conversation between The Bunker’s AD Chris Sonnex and writer Natalie Mitchell, about the theatre industry’s ongoing failure to meaningfully support working-class artists. Sonnex hadn’t yet read the play before he put it in this two-week slot in late October/early November. It’s an example of the kind of act of faith and support that new theatre-makers need, that The Bunker has been providing for the past three years, and why its closure feels like yet another emergency.
The play validates and repays Sonnex’s decision, I think. For one, it acts as a necessary reminder of how stupidly rare it is to hear working-class accents onstage – or anywhere in a theatre building, to be honest. It doesn’t labour that point; it just happens to set in Medway, Kent; one of the main characters happens to be a Millwall FC supporter because why wouldn’t he be, they’re the local team. Mitchell’s writing also displays a fundamental conviction that most people are generally trying to do the decent thing, which is endearing and warm; why not programme something encouraging people to be nice to each other?
Ash (Francesca Henry) has OCD, but she keeps it a secret because if people at her school knew, they’d probably think she was a freak. Due to her extensive, meticulously organised collection of informational leaflets, though, she’s exceptionally knowledgeable about sexually transmitted infections for a sixteen-year-old. That means she’s ideally placed to run an unofficial lunchtime sexual health clinic – charging students three quid for a diagnosis – but it also explains why she’s terrified of having sex with her boyfriend of three months, Ollie (Jake Richards). Ollie doesn’t get why Ash doesn’t want to have sex with him, leading to a series of misunderstandings.
It’s a simple plot, and that’s fine, it’s not really the point. The experience of watching it is overwhelmingly like watching a pair of teenagers, feeling a mix of sympathy and frustration, knowing better than them but having once made the same mistakes. At the play’s thematic heart is a central confusion between ‘communication’ (dialogue, sharing fears and secrets with another person, the Eternal Human Endeavour to convey meaning) and ‘passing it on’ (“C is for chlamydia, G is for gonorrhea, T is for thrush,” as Ash repeatedly reminds herself). Given the risk of the latter, maybe it’s best not to try the former. It’s confusing being a teenager.
The form of the play reflects the characters’ fear of passing on the wrong thought: for the most part, Ash and Ollie talk only to the audience, not each other, in intertwining monologues. Lizzy Leech’s clean and effective set design also feeds into this idea. The stage is partitioned into four strips, in varying shades of grey that reminded me of Mrs Hinch’s home decor: school, Ollie’s house, Ash’s bedroom, the town centre.
Henry sensitively portrays Ash’s spindly-but-firm courage in the face of her porous world, where dread seeps in through minor mistakes and can only be held at bay by touching the wing mirrors of every parked car. Richards plays Ollie with an sweetly innocent bemusement, each new thought dawning like sunrise on what Ash affectionately calls his ‘little moon face’. Under Grace Gummer’s smart direction, he’s laugh-out-loud funny: answering the door to his girlfriend, he turns gleefully to the audience and proudly shares the thought, “Ash looks FIT!!!” like it’s a verse of chivalric poetry. There were moments when I thought the tone sounded almost unreal, like they were quoting themselves or something, and then I realised that no, that’s exactly what teenagers sound like, because they’re still learning their own voices, a blend of rawness and formality, still drawing from both the playground and the textbook.
I’d been listening to ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ by X-Ray Spex all month because I thought the play might use it and I’m ever a conscientious researcher. Poly Styrene’s 1978 song is a clamorous, half-howling, half-drawling punk critique of consumer-capitalism’s stake in a manufactured relationship between cleanliness and femininity. Germ Free Adolescent is much gentler. It’s a love story above all. It’s about broader, maybe more accessible questions: What is normal? What do other people think is normal? That said, it also points towards the societal expectations that produce and reproduce toxic masculinity: Ollie’s first response to disappointment is to call Ash a pricktease, taking the lead from his friend Mike; he feels awkward about crying so he punches a wardrobe; he gets annoyed at his mum for not doing the laundry on time.
The narrative leads Ollie into a dangerous pattern and then back out again – maybe a little too neatly, just as Ash’s escape from a self-destructive habit towards the end feels a bit tidy – but then, it’s nice to see it happen, because you care about the characters’ young lives. Germ Free Adolescent wants you to believe Ash’s mantra: “it could happen, but it’ll be alright.” It’s a pure, kind-hearted aim. It deserves a stage to play on.
Germ Free Adolescent in on at The Bunker till 9th November. More info here.