Writer: Ben Weatherill
Director: Tim Hoare
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
While the Dorfman Theatre is much the smallest of the National’s three stages, it can still be a struggle to make it seem as intimate as some of London’s smaller theatres. For a story of deeply personal relationships as Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish, it means the cast – and the rest of the production – must work that little bit harder than the Bush Theatre, where this production premiered in 2018.
The additional space does allow Amy Jane Cook’s design, evoking the spirit of the rundown Skegness seaside, a space to breathe, providing a broad canvas for Weatherill to paint his story of a woman with Down Syndrome who falls in love.
Sarah Gordy’s Kelly is 27, but fiercely protected by Agnes, her lioness of a mother (Penny Layden), who has raised, protected and fought for her as a single mum for all of Kelly’s life. Their relationship forms the crux of Weatherill’s story, as Agnes struggles to accept Penny’s burgeoning sense of independence and adulthood.
As Kelly’s friendship with arcade worker Neil (Siôn Daniel Young) starts to blossom into romance, Agnes’ hard-line approach to Kelly’s life is difficult to hear. Neil cannot love Kelly, she believes, accusing him of exploiting her vulnerability. Layden allows floods of love and anger to flash across her face as she struggles to accept that Kelly could have found a potential partner outside the realm of one of the other adults with learning disabilities that she meets in the local support centre.
These relationships, and the conflicts that arise, are illustrated with a script that shows that Weatherill not only has an ear for believable, comedic language, but who also knows how to craft that into a well-paced, enthralling piece of theatre. Tim Hoare’s direction elicits performances that always suggest warmth and love, even when characters are falling out.
Completing the cast, Nicky Priest’s Dominic – a young man with Asperger’s who Agnes attempts to set Kelly up with in the hope that she will forget Neil – threatens to steal the show, as comic foils so often do. But while the character often introduces humour in the darkest of scenes, it is refreshing to see the forthright honesty his neurodiversity affords him used to propel the other characters to be more honest with themselves, and with each other.
As matters progress, and Kelly – who has been seeing Neil in secret – reveals her pregnancy to her shocked mother, Weatherill begins to explore issues around testing for Down’s in pregnancy, and the ability of women like Kelly to look after a baby of their own. Agnes’s hardline approach, which can sound so harsh and unfair, is shown to be taken out of love, but more out of fear. Layden and Gordy’s clashes bring the best out of both actors, exploring concerns with a depth of humanity that is warming to watch.
By the end, the Dorfman’s lack of intimacy is overcome: the simple act of a mother helping her Down’s Syndrome daughter shave her legs takes on a huge significance, and a sense of understanding of each other’s differing views on life is shared. The result is a work which marks Ben Weatherill out as a playwright who can take tricky situations, and craft them into something special.
Runs until 16 July 2019 | Image: Helen Murray