‘Jellyfish’ review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
Jellyfish, Bush Theatre
Ian Bonar (Neil) and Sarah Gordy (Kelly)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Tender, thought-provoking drama about a young woman with Down’s Syndrome

‘Jellyfish’ transfers to National Theatre in July 2019. This review is from its 2018 premiere at Bush Theatre.

The set-up of ‘Jellyfish’ is familiar. Girl meets boy. Girl’s mum is unimpressed with boy. Cue: a lot of fraught arguments. But Ben Weatherill’s play, directed by Tim Hoare, has more nuance and layers than that premise suggests. The girl in question, Kelly (played by Sarah Gordy) has Down Syndrome. And her boyfriend, Neil (Ian Bonar), doesn’t. When Kelly’s mum, Agnes (Penny Layden), finds out, she’s alarmed. Is Neil exploiting Kelly? Does Kelly know what she’s getting herself involved in?

Set in Skegness, with fairground paraphernalia adorning the set and sand underfoot, ‘Jellyfish’ looks at what it’s like to have a relationship when you have a learning disability. And it does so with a heap of compassion and gentle humour. Weatherill’s writing is crafted in such a way that we clearly see where each person is coming from – Kelly wants to live her own life, Agnes is trying to make sure her daughter doesn’t get hurt and poor Neil is stuck in the middle trying to do the best thing he can in the situation.

This is a simple story, but beautifully realised. Sarah Gordy, who like Kelly has Down’s, sensitively captures Kelly’s mix of defiance and humour, while Ian Bonar pitches Neil as a nervous but big-hearted geek. Penny Layden as Agnes is perhaps the most memorable though – effortlessly embodying the shifts in emotions Agnes is going through. And there’s a fantastic fourth character too: Dominic, a friend of Kelly’s who has Asperger’s and is hoping to get on to ‘Mastermind’ (specialist subject: Kylie). His performance is totally charming, with dry one-liners that land perfectly, providing a little light relief to the tense stand-offs between the other three characters.  

As the narrative develops ‘Jellyfish’ gains more emotional heft. It slowly reveals the difficulties Kelly and those close to her experience. And in turn, it subtly challenges the audience’s own prejudices. ‘You only want me to date people with learning disabilities,’ Kelly says at one point, starkly highlighting her mum’s flawed logic after a failed attempt at trying to set her up with Dominic. Another fraught conversation involves Agnes telling Neil that he’ll have to help Kelly more than he realises – even with things like shaving. In a later scene – completely without dialogue – Agnes carefully helps to shave Kelly’s legs. It’s a genuinely moving and tender show of motherly love that will win over even the coldest of hearts. 

By: Gail Tolley

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