There are a plethora of topics considered unpalatable and difficult to bring up with your children, and mental illness is definitely one of them. It often proves hard enough for adults to understand, let alone for those under 11. However, Jellyfish manages to approach the topic in a tactful and engaging way that acts as the perfect introduction to such a multi-faceted subject.
Immediately upon walking into the space, the soft blue lighting and melodious tones filling the theatre create a magical space already reminiscent of the sea and being underwater. Major kudos must be given to Sarah Reedman for the lighting design, and to Finn Anderson, whose wonderful and original compositions create so much of the magic in this play. The boxes stacked on stage give the scene a comfortable and homemade feel that we quickly find out is well earned. This iteration of the play is just stage one of what has been a five day research project at the Old Vic with international artists, puppetry experts, dramatherapy practitioners and children. Despite the short production time, Jellyfish is a thoughtful and fun, and had the feeling of a completed project. Jack Dorning did a particularly wonderful job as the young, inquisitive, and energetic Tom. The energy Dorning brought to the role definitely captured the attention of younger members of the audience, and both the character of Tom and Dorning himself acted as the heart and soul of the performance. For the children though, the other big star in this play was definitely the jellyfish itself.
Beautifully designed by the Smoking Apples company, the jellyfish, glowing with fairy lights, easily five foot long all together, and floating through the lives of Tom’s family, is an amazing piece of artistry that entranced the children- and a number of adults -in the audience. Interestingly enough, the jellyfish is meant to be the physical representation of Tom’s father’s mental illness. It’s presence elicits mood swings and a loss of energy in Tom’s father, eventually causing him to snap at Tom for no reason and caused a very concerned little girl behind me to ask “why is he mad at Tom?” Despite this though, I think it’s very important to note that the jellyfish is never cast in an entirely negative light. It’s not some malevolent force going out of its way to make Tom’s father miserable. It’s just something that is there. At one point the jellyfish even plays with Tom, mischievously avoiding the boy’s attempts to capture it. This, I think, was one of the play’s most important points, and a crucially important idea to introduce to children.
Mental illness is not some great evil. It’s not something that should be demonised or something to be ashamed of. It’s simply something that needs to be recognised and managed properly. The jellyfish shows up unprompted and unaware of what it’s doing. It’s not an evil thing, and, as Tom states very clearly at the end of the play, it is not anyone’s fault the jellyfish is there.
Jellyfish tackles a difficult subject in an imaginative and fun way that is easy for kids to understand and easy for them to enjoy. If this is just the first stage for this magical and important play, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Jellyfish played at The Vaults until 28 February 2016. For more information, see www.vaultfestival.com