Jellyfish at the National Theatre
What a great thing it is that the National Theatre has given Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish a second run after its premiere at the Bush last year. It’s sweet and hard and funny and surprising, just like lead Sarah Gordy’s Kelly.
In sunny Skegness – Amy Jane Cook’s Pleasure Beach set wonderfully captures the shabby charm of the British seaside, that slightly cartoonish environment of naff excess – Kelly lives with her mum, Agnes (Penny Layden). The least interesting thing about her is that she has Down’s Syndrome. She just wants what everybody else wants. Love. And sex.
After weeks of cold chips with arcade worker Neil (Sion Daniel Young), Kelly decides she can’t beat around the bush any longer, confronting him about his feelings before stealing a kiss. From this moment a relationship blossoms, only for it to be cut short when Agnes finds out. That’s because Neil doesn’t have Down’s, a fact that leads to questions of consent and accusations of predatory behaviour. Yet they continue to meet in secret, their clandestine romance coming to a head when Kelly falls pregnant, prompting a very difficult discussion about what happens next…
It’s fascinating to see the changes in how Kelly behaves with her mum and Neil respectively. With the latter she is frank about what she wants and how she feels; with the former the dynamic is different. Agnes is torn between wanting to give her child her freedom and knowing how hard it is for Kelly to be in the world. There is a beautiful moment that paints this tension: the mother silently shaving Kelly’s legs, before her daughter takes the razor for herself, asserting her independence in the simplest way possible.
Gordy is a delight – determined, flirtatious, scared. She has a real connection with Young’s sincere and out-of-his-depth Neil. Their scenes are among the best; awkward and romantic at first, raw but still tender once the condom splits. Though the role is perhaps a tad more familiar – fiercely protective mother – Layden’s rough honesty means the play never strays towards syrupy. There is also excellent support from Nicky Priest’s disastrous date Dominic. Initially the character – who has Asperger’s – looks like he is worryingly just comic relief, before being fleshed out in a couple of lovely scenes in the second half.
Weatherill covers a lot of tough ground once the pregnancy is revealed. But Jellyfish never loses its warmth or sense of humour; nor does it once patronise Kelly and the decisions she makes. It’s remarkable how lightly the play wears its complexity.
Photos: Helen Murray
Jellyfish is at the National Theatre from 5th July until 16th July 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.