Almost impossibly tender and true, Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish is a minor-key masterpiece at the Bush Theatre
“Do you think there will be people like us around for ever?”
I know a little something of what it is to be treated differently in this world. Whenever I took an exam at school, college, even university, I would be given extra time, usually an hour, because that was what disabled students got. Regardless of the fact that my only concern was being able to communicate effectively in big echoey halls – I’m deaf y’see – one category fit us all for the differently-abled… And that does something to you no matter how confident you are, to be shunted off to the special room even by the most well-meaning of souls and God knows I had some amazing teachers who provided invaluable help.
That feeling of being considered ‘different’ came flooding back to me while watching Ben Weatherill’s achingly beautiful play Jellyfish in the studio space at the Bush Theatre. It’s a feeling that dominates Kelly’s life. At 27, she’s convinced of her own independence and a burgeoning relationship with the slightly older Neil promises much. Kelly has Down’s Syndrome and lives with her mother Agnes though, a mother who has provided unerringly constant care for her daughter and can’t conceive that this could ever be a healthy relationship. She means well, so very well, but at what cost? Does the help she offers square with the needs of a young woman yearning for sexual maturity.
Jellyfish is so tender and true that even as it subtly breaks your heart, it is also filling it with joy. The way in the gentle but only-too-real romance between Kelly and Neil is cultivated through the most unassuming of conversations (played to perfection by Sarah Gordy and Ian Bonar); the jagged edges of a mother/daughter relationship being roughly, but necessarily, reshaped (Gordy connecting beautifully with an exceptional Penny Layden). Such huge depths of feeling run through every scene of Tim Hoare’s production and yet it still maintains a lightness to it, aided by a marvellous vein of brusque humour.
This comes largely from Nicky Priest’s Dominic, someone who Agnes thinks is suitable for her daughter because he is on the spectrum. His deadpan ways are spectacular, his t-shirt choices inspired, his developing friendship with Kelly a treasure to behold as they compare notes on overprotective mothers and the difficulties of getting laid when you’re disabled. For Weatherill never shies away from the realities of the situation, of the fact that they are different, no matter how you (I) feel about it. And in the play’s most quietly revolutionary moment, they touch on enormous, unsayable questions like the one quoted up top with a searing, clear-eyed sincerity. It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen on stage.
In an age of genetic screening and scientific advances, it’s a question to really think about. What would you change if you could? What would you lose of yourself if you hadn’t been through the challenges life poses? How far does diversity go? How far should it go? Weatherill’s play explores these questions through his characters but Hoare’s production further interrogates them through his actors. It could be Gordy and Priest talking about their own experiences, their feelings at being lumped together with the label neurodiverse (which they may well be happy with, I would never want to put words into anyone’s mouth). In its own unassuming way, Jellyfish is one of the most daring things I’ve ever seen on stage.