IN BRIEF “Rare and special” play about loving someone different is inspiring – and great fun too
There is so much that is positive, smart and funny in JELLYFISH that makes it an important and irresistible look at difference.
Kelly is a smart, funny, feisty young woman ready for life – and a boyfriend. The fact that she happens to have Downs Syndrome is sometimes a problem for other people but not for Kelly. But this difference colours how other people view her, and this impacts on how those who care for Kelly have to act. “You have to assume they are out to hurt you” as her mother says.
Raised by her single mum Agnes, stress and worry ingrained in every line on her pallid face, the protective bond that has developed between them is tested to its limits when Kelly flirts with Neil, a sweet, shy boy she has met in the seafront arcade.
When she hears of this, Agnes’ own bad experience with men and her uncalibrated protective thinking sees nothing but a threat and she rips into Neil, ordering him to stop seeing Kelly.
Agnes organises an alternative match by setting Kelly up on an uncomfortable blind date with Dominic, who has Asperger’s. In the ensuing showdown between Kelly and Agnes, the shock that Kelly is now pregnant causes a reassessment all around and piles on the pressure from all sides.
On the show’s journey there is learning for all three as they are tested by charting unknown territory, leading to the three becoming more of a functioning family again, in time for the birth, when even more testing lies ahead. But it is clear that these characters have grown, and grown together, and can face the future with a new-found confidence.
Weatherill writes with a visual eye. In a lovely observational balance-shifter, the still, quiet scene where Agnes shaves Kelly’s legs but then Kelly stops her, doing it herself ably, teaching her mother she can do more than she previously gave her credit for. It speaks volumes about assumptions we all make every day, even about our loved ones.
What’s also great about Weatherill’s writing is that it takes us off-guard. A scene which opens as a discussion about genetics and mutation is revealed to be a discussion about comic book heroes and not Downs as we had first imagined. That jolt, and the reminder to not take everything too seriously is one of the genuinely refreshing things about the play. Similarly, the characteristics of Asperger’s-suffering Dominic’s own deadpan delivery confounds our reading of what he says and at times we are thrown a curveball which makes us sit up – and laugh. Let’s not overlook the good amount of laughter contained in the show.
Sarah Gordy portrays Kelly with a lust for life and a youthful hopefulness which is hard to resist, the audience roots for her along her path. As Agnes, Penny Layden effectively suggests the perpetual state of alert that she lives in, sinews constantly taut to react quickly. Sion Daniel Young is sweetly affable and engaging as trusting Neil, winning our respect as he carefully negotiates along the path of uncertainty in this relationship with care for Kelly at his heart, giving a sensitive and well-considered performance. Nicky Priest as Dominic is a useful speaker of truths, also the comic relief and ally of all the parties involved, played with linear conviction.
Prejudice is fear born out of ignorance “They can’t see past it”, as Kelly says, referring to her facial difference through Down’s. As carefully directed by Tim Hoare, Ben Weatherill’s play will go a long way towards helping us all to see more clearly that there is much more in people that unites us than separates us, and that love is the language that everyone understands.