Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish explores the journey of Kelly (Sarah Gordy), who has Down’s Syndrome, as she navigates the rollercoaster of love, as well as the effect it has on those closest to her, against the backdrop of the faded seaside glamour of Skegness. Kelly struggles to gain independence, while her mother Agnes (Penny Layden) struggles simultaneously to protect her and allow her independence. When Kelly and Neil (Ian Bonar), who is not disabled, fall in love, Agnes’ desperation to protect Kelly takes over and the two fall out. When a further unexpected surprise comes to light, the three of them struggle to find the right solution, knowing there are risks at every turn.
Skegness is depicted wonderfully and simply by Amy Jane Cook, with a raked wooden slope surrounded by sand, with bright washes, and arcade-style bold-coloured light bulbs surrounding an ice cream and filling out giant letters from Jamie Platt. Add in an excellent soundscape of waves, seagulls and arcade game buzzers and bells from Emma Wahlström, and a sense of place on the beaches and piers of Lincolnshire is very firmly established.
It feels like a place that has seen better days and now doesn’t know where to go, and this transfers to a certain claustrophobia felt by the characters. Dominic (Nicky Priest), who has Asperger Syndrome, in particular, is aware of how he hasn’t been anywhere else, and the hopelessness this sometimes engenders. Priest delivers a terrific performance as a patient and honest friend, providing wonderful comic timing and a considered deadpan delivery, as well as thoughtful reflection on his own situation. Bonar also provides strong development as Neil as he goes through a whole gamut of emotions as he processes his burgeoning relationship with Kelly, from trepidation, through wonder, and the stress of being called a paedophile at work, to bewilderment at some of her actions. His moments of silence when addressing tough issues, beautifully bring to life a real sense of grappling with things which are impossible to say. Gordy’s performance as Kelly is also excellent, as her new-found independence and relationship leave her questioning her choices and her future. Impulsive and inquisitive, she brings strong emotions, and a fiery temper, as well as warmth and humour, particularly when flirting with Neil. After forgetting a couple of lines early on, she recovered well and brought great energy. Perhaps the stand out performance, though, is Layden’s hard-nosed Agnes. Wonderfully pitched, her love is unbending, and her sacrifice unrelenting, but there is an unquestionable toughness which the other characters cannot match. There is still tenderness and emotion though, which allows her to forge a real connection with the audience, particularly as she goes through internal conflict about what do in certain situations, when there is perhaps no right answer.
Weatherill’s script is what brings out these good performances, with excellent pitching. In many ways it is simply a love story which deals with independence, loneliness and life’s impossible decisions, but it also deals with disability in a way which is upfront, insightful and very funny (“a beach in Chernobyl would be nicer than Scunthorpe”). There are scenes which seem too long, where conversations with plenty of subtext never seem to reach their point, or lack comic relief, but these are relatively rare. For the most part, it remains engaging, and allows good development in the characters’ relationships, makes them relatable, and takes the audience on the journey with them. Overall, Tim Hoare’s Jellyfish is a thoughtful and powerful production in all departments.
Jellyfish is playing at Bush Theatre until 21 July
Photo: Tristram Kenton