Review | Jellyfish at the National Theatre

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JELLYFISH by Ben Weatherill ; Directed by Tim Hoare ; Set Design by Amy Jane Cook ; Lighting Design by Jamie Platt ; Sound Design by Ella Wahlström ; Assistant Director: Hana Pascal Keegan ; National Theatre ; In association with the Bush Theatre ; Dorfman Theatre ; London, UK ; 5 July 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

Ben Weatherhill wrote Jellyfish specifically for the actress Sarah Gordy, and after seeing her incredible performance at The National Theatre, you can see why. Gordy plays the protagonist Kelly, a twenty-seven-year-old woman with Down’s Syndrome who lives with her mum, Agnes (Penny Layden), in the seaside town of Skegness. Kelly and Agnes have a settled routine within this environment, characterised by their love for the beach and punctuated by Agnes’ caring duties for Kelly. However, the development of a romantic relationship between Kelly and Neil (Siôn Daniel Young), an able-bodied man, disrupts this, with the over-protective Agnes taking fierce issue against their dating. Under the direction of Tim Hoare, Jellyfish constructs an astute narrative, both moving and hilarious, which is progressive in the way it forces audiences to question areas often left undiscussed.

During Jellyfish, we watch Kelly attempt to establish herself within the conflict between what people expect her to be, what she wants to be, and who she really is. From the off, Kelly seems determined to defy people’s expectations of her, never wanting to be defined by her disability. A passing comment from Neil about how he would have expected Kelly to be sweet and innocent represents general social assumptions about people with Down’s Syndrome: an assumption which Kelly briskly debunks with her swearing and love for dirty jokes. Gordy’s performance of Kelly is hilarious, winning resounding laughs throughout the theatre.

Kelly’s sense of humour is coupled with a fierce confidence, making the pairing of her and the more shy, insecure Neil tender to watch. It was refreshing to have the focus of the piece on the characters as equals, loving and supporting each other, rather than centring on her disability which could have the inaccurate preconception of making her appear vulnerable. In one beautiful scene, Kelly dances away confidently and encourages Neil to join her, building him up from a slight sway to a jive in a moving moment symbolic of her ability to boost his confidence. The banter between Neil and Kelly is also charming to watch, with the chemistry between the actors aiding the way their characters spar with each other. These two talented actors are perfectly matched, able to realistically portray all the moments of a relationship, with their love evident in both their arguments and laughs.

The different ways that Neil and Agnes treat Kelly introduces the discussion of how Kelly’s disability shapes others’ perceptions of her, at points settling into an opposition of the idealist versus the realist. Unsurprisingly, Agnes is the realist in the situation, due to years of experience of caring for Kelly and watching how she is treated. A number of scenes powerfully demonstrate the intricate balance that Agnes must strike between letting Kelly be independent and ensuring that she is safe, with Kelly often lashing out against perceived smothering. We see the growth in Kelly’s maturity and Agnes’ trust in Kelly in a particularly touching scene, where Kelly proves her ability to shave her legs unassisted with Agnes looking on with simultaneous pride and anxiety.

JELLYFISH by Ben Weatherill ; Directed by Tim Hoare ; Set Design by Amy Jane Cook ; Lighting Design by Jamie Platt ;
Sound Design by Ella Wahlström ; Assistant Director: Hana Pascal Keegan ; National Theatre ; In association with the Bush Theatre ; Dorfman Theatre ; London, UK ; 5 July 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

Through Agnes’ acute understanding of how people tend to treat those with Down’s Syndrome, playwright, Ben Weatherhill, forces us to question ourselves and whether we too have been guilty of seeing the disability over the individual. Weatherhill cleverly builds on this through the uncomfortable situation in which Agnes finds herself: she has raised Kelly with the belief that she is no different to anyone else yet judges Kelly’s relationship with Neil solely through the prism of her disability, assuming that Neil must be a type of predator. Weatherhill’s narrative works through this insightfully, balancing Agnes’ desire for Kelly’s happiness with a sense of protectiveness and an ingrained scepticism about wider society. Penny Layden brings so much talent to this role, skilfully charging her anger at Neil with a deep tenderness and love for Kelly, along with the anxiety that Kelly perhaps does not need her as much as she thought. Layden shifts wonderfully from anger to blunt humour, portraying this complex character with a great sense of understanding.  

Neil is the perfect foil to Agnes’ distrust of his affection, as he is so far removed from the judgement and discrimination found elsewhere in society that he cannot understand why others might find his relationship strange. Neil sees Kelly’s Down’s Syndrome as separate from her personality and thus irrelevant to his love for her, at one profound moment commenting that “Kelly’s Down’s Syndrome is the least interesting thing about her”. As Neil’s idealism begins to struggle under social pressures, Young manages to perfectly characterise a depth of affection for Kelly while straining under his own insecurities. Credit must be given to Young for his portrayal of Neil’s character’s development, ultimately reaching a balance between cynicism and idealism.

JELLYFISH by Ben Weatherill ; Directed by Tim Hoare ; Set Design by Amy Jane Cook ; Lighting Design by Jamie Platt ; Sound Design by Ella Wahlström ; Assistant Director: Hana Pascal Keegan ; National Theatre ; In association with the Bush Theatre ; Dorfman Theatre ; London, UK ; 5 July 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

The introduction of Dominic (Nicky Priest) to the plot, when Agnes sets him up on a blind date with Kelly, is a wonderful addition to this already incredibly talented cast. Dominic’s Asperger’s manifests in his character in a very comic deadpan, particularly hilarious during intense scenes, with Dominic as awkward as the situation himself. Weatherhill again ensures that he does not define his characters solely by their disability, creating a supportive and honest friendship between Kelly and Dominic. The conversation about disability is widened in a particularly thought-provoking scene where Kelly and Dominic openly discuss their disabilities and the way it shapes other judgements of them, again forcing us as the audience to question ourselves and our attitudes.

While Kelly’s Down’s Syndrome shapes much of the plot development, this is a play about love rather than disability — the cast have delved into the complexities of relationships, both maternal and romantic. For every uncomfortable moment throughout the play, Weatherhill forces us to ask ourselves why it makes us uncomfortable, and like the characters, the audience is led to question and develop from our preconceptions. Jellyfish ultimately leads us to understand that, while there may be difficulties along the way, no one should be prevented from loving who they want. This thought-provoking and hilarious play is one not to be missed.


Jellyfish is on at the National Theatre until July 16th. For more information and for tickets, visit National Theatre.
Words by Katrina Bennett.


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