Jellyfish is a straightforward play which I find strangely difficult to describe. What’s it about? Well, it’s about relationships, it’s about letting go, it’s about Skegness, it’s about coming of age, it’s about sex, it’s about money, it’s momentarily about jellyfish and for slightly longer it’s about a crab. What ties all of these ends together is disability – the protagonist Kelly suffers from Down Syndrome. And yet, this doesn’t feel like a play about Down Syndrome.
Having transferred from a run at The Bush Theatre in 2018, Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish is now being performed at The National Theatre. Three of the original cast have survived the trip south of the river, but I was shocked it wasn’t all four. It felt as if each of them had been born to play their part – the cast seem so comfortable in their roles and it ensures the whole performance is a total joy to behold from start to end.
The dialogue between characters is seamless and effortless, the acting small and wholly believable, the laughs frequent and genuine. You could say it reflects sitcom, or kitchen sink drama, but what it actually really feels like is life. There is no battle here between good and evil. As Kelly’s mother Agnes and her love interest Neil argue over what is best for her, nobody is ever in the wrong. They both want the best, but the two best things are two different things. It’s not black and white, everything is shades of grey.
Everything except the set that is, which is a bright and bizarre collection of bits of seaside paraphernalia, designed to look worn down but in an eerily pristine set design sort of way (the table in Agnes’ ‘not nice’ kitchen is actually, I’m fairly sure, a Conran). A large wall with flashing bright letters forces perspective, elongates the set and dizzies the audience slightly. The whole play takes place in front of these big permanent items of set; this production is Skegness through and through.
The play is funny, and gets a very warm reception indeed from it’s audience on the night I am there. It’s sense of humour is able to be incredibly relatable, whilst still feeling true to a subject we can’t all necessarily relate to. There are filthy jokes, but no crass ones. Everything said has an empathy behind it, the play doesn’t like to attack it’s protagonists or it’s audience. When Agnes or Neil reveal their own insecurities about the disabilities of those around them (“this is Dominic, he’s from Scunthorpe and he has Asperger’s”), it is never taken out of the context of the love they feel towards Kelly. Everyone has misconceptions about Kelly, but none of them malicious. The writing doesn’t shame or chastise the audience any more than the characters, and I came away with a deeper insight into living with down syndrome. I also came away having laughed and been moved. A good evening all round.