Looking for JJ, Unicorn Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Books for teenagers have, not surprisingly, changed since I was the age of their intended readers, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The one I read back then was about a girl who longed for a beautiful white dress in the local shop but had to go to the dance in a frumpy one her mother made.

Looking for JJ, a novel by Anne Cassidy, adapted and directed by Marcus Romer, is about a 17-year-old girl who, when she was 10, killed her friend. We meet JJ, or Jennifer Jones, as she leaves prison to begin university, under a new name. The story is presented as a mystery: which of her two childhood friends did JJ kill, and why?

What has changed even more, however, is the writing and the morality. While the English of my teenage novel was simple, Cassidy's is basic. The vocabulary is at starvation level – when JJ says she was "preoccupied", she defines the word – and everyone speaks in short, choppy sentences that express bursts of pleasure or distress.

Although stories aimed at teenagers are called "young adult", this one is more young-childish. JJ's preoccupations are pragmatic ones: how shall she cope with exposure in a tabloid? What shall she tell her boyfriend?

Our condemnation is sought only for the bad behaviour of adults, such as the tabloid reporter or JJ's lone mother, who tries to get her daughter to join her in posing for nude pictures, though JJ's remark that she didn't mean to kill her grandmother's dog, just "make it whimper a little", suggests something much nastier than we are allowed to see.

The acting is, like the text, vapid and chirpy, though Davood Ghadami, as the boyfriend and the photographer, displays talent that might profit from a director with more subtlety.

Looking for JJ seems intended for ostensible adults rather than for teenagers or children. Adults who, like Romer, the director of Pilot Theatre, want to "explore and develop debate around issues".

Recognising and promoting good writing – or the education to appreciate it – may be more difficult, and afford less self-satisfaction, but it seems more likely to encourage love and understanding, of literature and people, than this antiseptic, puerile claptrap.

To 25 November, then touring (020-7645 0560; www.unicorntheatre.com)

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