No show has ever made me want to eavesdrop on the conversations of fellow theatre-goers as much as Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish, which has transferred from the Bush Theatre to the National’s 450-seat Dorfman Theatre earlier this month. Funny and thought-provoking, Weatherill’s two-act, four-hander drama is both searing and sincere. It finds the heights of extremely awkward first-date hilarity and the complexities of maternal love fast and potently. Its second act is a tour de force, having been set up with all manner of tension and great wit before the interval.
We meet Kelly (Sarah Gordy) and her mother, Agnes (Penny Layden) on the beach in Skegness in an interchange about a crab washed up on the shore. The two women’s reactions to the flotsam is telling: not only does Kelly find fascination with the moribund crustacean and her mother doesn’t, but also we learn that Kelly, who has Downs Syndrome, is acutely aware of her power to provoke reactions. She ribs her mother with deliberate puckishness rather than helplessness or coincidence. The audience immediately sees layers to Kelly’s world via her awareness not only of what she beholds but how she is beheld. And it is through this double or triple gaze that the audience observes, is entranced by and finds itself complicit in much of the ensuing drama. Entering a world in which the lead actor has Downs Syndrome and enacts a story with many markers of a romantic comedy takes us to both a warm and self-conscious place at once. Director Tim Hoare and playwright Ben Weatherill don’t lecture or polemicise but they do seduce with a bit of deceptive gentleness. (Or so it seemed to me, which is why I wanted to ear-wig on intra-audience chatter.)
Penny Layden as Agnes is outstanding. Taking a role that encompasses a salt-of-the-earth northern single mum of a disabled adult that could have veered so easily towards sanctity and giving it stratospheric levels of complexity, nuance and soul, Layden delivers an entirely imperfect, unsaintly, devoted and completely believable Penny. She takes us from being lulled into an overly cosy, ‘oh she’s just like us,’ moment and eviscerates that simplistic condescension of ‘she’s a gift’ that naïve well-wishers offered her as cold comfort with an even more humanising thought of how she hated it because it was: ‘not seeing people with Downs Syndrome as people with their own problems’.
Agnes delivers many of the play’s home-truths but also tells us something about constancy. She may disapprove but she won’t disappear. In some of her exchanges with Kelly’s lover, Neil (Siôn Daniel Young), Agnes explains that ‘caring for Kelly means literally caring for her.’
Young as Neil is the only member of the cast who didn’t perform during the play’s debut at the Bush Theatre. The role of Neil is central to establishing a credible and conflicted love story between Neil, who is not intellectually disabled, and Kelly, who is. Every other character in the play has a strong and fascinating back-story but I felt robbed of Neil’s. We believe that he loves Kelly and he is strong in enacting his commitment and conflicts but we know so much less about his world prior to his arrival on a seaside bench with Kelly than we do about the would-be alternative suitor, Dominic (Nicky Priest). Sarah Gordy, on the other hand, delivers a powerful performance of longing and fulfilment-threatened that is electrifying. When she exhorts Neil that he can leave her if he no longer likes her but not because anyone says it’s wrong – reminding him she has waited so long for love – the line lands like the best ballad to which every teenager cried for its truth and intensity. We don’t get the same emotional intensity from Neil in this production.
Nicky Priest as Dominic, who has Asperger’s, and who Agnes thinks would be a more suitable boyfriend for Kelly, is outstanding. His timing is Swiss-watch perfect, making every line and reaction he delivers hilarious and winning. The construction of the scene in which Dominic’s literalism exposes the subtext of Agnes and Kelly’s emotional battle takes us through lens after lens of how personal and social dynamics might be seen and are seldom confronted truthfully. He is a delight to watch and I can’t wait to see more of his work.
Ella Wahlstrom’s sound design is strong and evocative without being overbearing, likewise is Jamie Platt’s lighting design. Amy Jane Cook’s set takes us to the worlds of this play effectively but I couldn’t help but wonder if only the budget could have stretched to it, what benefits some mechanised scene changes might have offered the pacing and the play’s sense of fluidity.
Fundamentally, Jellyfish is a play about love, commitment and the need for help of all kinds in a world where few get any of them at all. Weatherill has done a rare thing: he has not trivialised or sentimentalised disability but, without shying away from themes that could be called ‘challenging’, has managed to give us a funny and pleasant night at the theatre – but not a free pass from thinking. Jellyfish is not charity nor consciousness-raising, it earns every penny of its ticket price as theatre; go see it while you can!
Review by Mary Beer
Following a sold-out run at the Bush Theatre last year, Sarah Gordy returns to play Kelly for a limited run of this radical and heartfelt new play.
Kelly likes dirty jokes and finding creatures washed up on the shore. Neil likes Kelly, who makes him dizzy and breathless. But Agnes, Kelly’s mum, struggles to accept their new relationship.
Jellyfish is the story of a first kiss, chips by the beach and coming of age with Down’s Syndrome in a seaside town. It’s a unique romance across uncharted waters which asks: does everyone really have the right to love as they choose?
Kelly – Sarah Gordy
Agnes – Penny Layden
Dominic – Nicky Priest
Neil – Siôn Daniel Young
Director – Tim Hoare
Designer – Amy Jane Cook
Lighting Designer – Jamie Platt
Sound Designer – Ella Wahlström
Assistant Director – Hana Pascal Keegan
Playing until 16th July 2019