sat 24/08/2019

Jellyfish, National Theatre review - Ben Weatherill's play hits the right notes | reviews, news & interviews

Jellyfish, National Theatre review - Ben Weatherill's play hits the right notes

Jellyfish, National Theatre review - Ben Weatherill's play hits the right notes

Four-hander about a young woman falling in love transfers from the Bush Theatre

By the sea: Kelly (Sarah Gordy) and her mother Agnes (Penny Layden) in 'Jellyfish'Helen Murray, NT

The intense relationship between a single parent and a single child is ramped up to its highest level when it involves a mother whose daughter has learning disabilities. From that dynamic, writer Ben Weatherill has crafted a warm, engaging and moving play about Kelly and her mum Agnes. We meet them on their daily walk along the beach in Skegness, poking at a dead crab and discussing what to wear to work.  

When Kelly (Sarah Gordy) takes too long fussing with her trainers, Agnes (Penny Layden) goes to help her and is met with "I’m 27-years-old, I can put my own shoes on", but she can’t quite manage the laces and accepts Agnes’s assistance. It’s a small detail, but speaks volumes about the sometimes exasperating and fiercely protective love Agnes has for her daughter. Kelly, like the actress Sarah Gordy (best known for roles in Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey), has Down’s Syndrome. Although she’s described by Agnes as high-functioning, society doesn’t always see Kelly’s capabilities because her disability is so visible.  Agnes can’t believe that her daughter’s new boyfriend, arcade employee Neil (Siôn Daniel Young), can have good intentions towards Kelly. She’s fully aware of the high rates of abuse that women with learning disabilities suffer at the hands of neurotypical men who sexually exploit them as easy prey. Agnes would rather see Kelly paired up with Dominic (Nicky Priest), whom she found online on a special needs mums' network; he has Asperger Syndrome and is a self-confessed virgin whose obsession with Kylie Minogue’s chart history will win him an appearance on Mastermind

Jellyfish had a sold-out run last year at the intimate Bush theatre, where its wonderfully sandy set placed the audience on the beach with the actors. While it’s great that the play has transferred to the larger space of the Dorfman within the National Theatre, the acoustics are more challenging for Gordy: at times it’s hard to catch all her lines. That is a shame because the actor’s collaboration with Weatherill has produced a wonderfully complex character in Kelly. She is witty, carnal (sex is "awesome" although foreskins are a bit weird) and wholly three-dimensional. She isn’t always kind to the patient and adoring Neil and gets furious with her mother about setting her up with Dominic ("You’ve pimped me out!"). Watching Kelly dance with Neil while Tom Jones croons "It’s Not Unusual" is magical and gives us a chance to see Gordy’s fabulous moves. 

The playwright doesn't shy away from difficult questions about parenthood for people with learning disabilities but Jellyfish is not overly didactic; a reference to Iceland (where genetic screening has almost eliminated Down's Syndrome from the population) flies by too fast. We don’t see directly the insults and discrimination the couple endure – away for the weekend, they are given a hotel room with two single beds, not the double they booked, and a pharmacist laughs at Kelly when she tries to get contraception. Agnes knows that most people "can’t see past Down's Syndrome" and warns Neil of the support her daughter will always need; Neil is horrified that people stare at him and assume him to be some kind of "creepy guy". 

Weatherill tries hard to lighten the piece and much of the comedy is given to Dominic. The writing here is not always fresh, his blunt, nerdish persona an Asperger stereotype over-familiar from Rain Man and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s not that Priest (pictured above left with Gordy) isn’t good in the role: his timing is excellent. It is more that the Dominic character is clichéd in a way that Kelly isn’t. But it’s nonetheless wonderful to see complex, neurodiverse lives portrayed on the National’s stages, and a particular joy to see Gordy’s smile break through when a scene has landed perfectly and brought the audience to laughter and tears. 

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