Writer: Ben Weatherill
Director: Tim Hoare
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
How do perceived misfits find their place in our society? Ben Weatherill’s gentle comedy looks bravely into sensitive issues by challenging preconceptions and prejudices, while serving up a fair number of good laughs in the process.
Sarah Gordy gives a remarkably confident and mature performance as Kelly, a 27-year-old woman who has Down’s Syndrome. Kelly’s life turns around when she befriends Neil, who is a few years older and “normal”. She sees him as a friend and possible lover, but her mother, Agnes, sees him as a predator with sinister intent and wider society sees him as weird. In Tim Hoare’s carefully paced production, the play uses subtle humour to explore how the friendship could develop into co-habitation and parenthood, with relationship ups and down along the way.
Many of the scenes take place on a chilly Skegness beach, Amy Jane Cook’s set design including plentiful sand, a boardwalk and suggestions of amusement arcades and ice cream vendors. Agnes and Kelly have walked this beach every day for 15 years, their bond firmly sealed until the arrival of Neil. As the protective mother, Penny Laden is gritty and down-to-Earth, but she displays the weariness brought on by what feels to her like a lifetime of caring. Agnes speaks movingly of what it means to be a carer, in terms of the everyday practicalities, and she fears with good reason what could happen if she lets Kelly go.
At times when the writing becomes too earnest and laden with worthiness, the play tends to be a little stodgy, but Weatherill tempers this by tapping into a rich vein of dark comedy, beginning with the arrival of Dominic, a young man with Asperger Syndrome, who is Agnes’ chosen suitor for Kelly. She has found him on Tinder. Nicky Priest’s deadpan style is perfect for Dominic, whose literal interpretations (“I’m not blind” he replies at the suggestion that he is on a blind date) and unintended sarcasm give the play its funniest moments. “We all deserve to be as miserable as each other” he philosophises, before moving on to revise for his forthcoming appearance on Mastermind, with the specialist subject of Kylie Minogue.
If the play has a shortcoming, it is that it does not tell us enough about Neil. Weatherill’s failure to flesh out the character leaves Ian Bonar with little option but to play him as kindly but dull and it becomes very difficult for him and Gordy to make the romance between Neil and Kelly believable. However, we have no problems with believing in the underlying warmth of the adversarial mother/daughter relationship which lies at the heart of the play.
Weatherill poses more questions than he offers answers, but, commendably, he does not go for any soft options. If nothing else, Jellyfish betrays its title by reminding us that people with learning disabilities are not spineless and they don’t sting.
Runs until 21 July 2018 | Image: Sam Taylor