Kelly is 27. She loves long walks on the beach, and the arcade on the Skegness pier. She also loves Neil. Neil is 30. He loves debating the virtues and vices of Iron Man, and doesn’t like the beach, but loves Kelly. Kelly has Down Syndrome. Neil is neurotypical. And Kelly’s mum, Agnes, is having none of it.
Such is the love story of Jellyfish that stretches out windingly and lovingly like the Skegness coastline. The production has moved from its first home at the Bush Theatre to the Dorfman, and the gorgeously simple set, designed by Amy Jane Cook, nestles well into the space. A metal bench on the tiled boardwalk next to a bin submerged in mounds of hilly sand foreground the red exterior of an old, run-down arcade, and the light blue sky on the open water. It’s a romantic background for falling in love, and growing up.
Although the play well and truly is Kelly’s story of falling in love, keeping a relationship, and becoming a mother, I saw two coming of age stories unfold together: that of Kelly, and of her mum. Kelly is a young woman with a fierce drive for independence and bodily autonomy, played with delightful charm and fire by Sarah Gordy. She wants kisses and sex, and is certain in every decision she makes. Penny Layden as Agnes achingly walks the line between a protective mother and overbearing, manipulative one as Agnes struggles to learn how to be the parent for an adult with Down Syndrome. Agnes wants to do what’s best for her child, which includes feeding her, taking her to work, and deciding who she can and cannot befriend, or date. She knows Kelly can’t shave her legs herself, and knows that she cannot decide for herself that she’s in love and that she’s capable of raising a child. Or at least, she thinks she knows.
So each woman tries to take things into their own hands: Agnes forbids Kelly from dating Neil – how could a neurotypical man want her daughter unless he’s a sexual predator taking advantage? Kelly meets Neil on the pier for cold chips and kisses anyway. Long after Kelly is supposed to have broken things off with Neil, Agnes invites Dominic, played with charm and brilliant deadpan comedic timing by Nicky Preist, for dinner. Because at least Agnes knows Dominic’s mum, so they can always keep a watchful eye on Kelly (and Dominic). But neither Dominic nor Kelly want this – Kelly has Neil, and Dominic has grown to accept that while he will always need some help because he has Aspergers, he is his own person with a crush on someone else. They become each other’s closest confidants, especially as Neil and Kelly’s relationship takes serious twists and turns.
Ben Weatherill’s script brings to life conversations between these neurodiverse characters that I have never seen onstage. They bond over the shared struggle of becoming an adult and escaping what feels like the suffocating clutches of over-protective parents. She, nor Dominic, nor their identities are ever the butt of the script’s humour. Kelly and Dominic’s humour comes from their blunt observations and disarming insight about the absurdities of neurotypical social norms. Kelly finds humour through expressing what she wants: ‘Do you hear that?’ she asks Neil when he expresses concern about having sex in her mother’s house, ‘it’s my virginity screaming “shut the fuck up!”’.
This is normally the part in major newspaper reviews where the critic tries to summarise the morals and values that anyone can take away from the production. But to do so is a disservice to Kelly’s story especially. There’s so much to feel, think, and talk about with the complexities of Kelly’s story, so in the spirit of Kelly’s open honesty, I will say what the production made me feel: I sometimes felt like I was looking into a distorted mirror, with Kelly and her mother reflecting back rather than my brother and our parents. The narrative of the disabled child growing into the disabled adult (and the parent growing too) is hard to find – especially onstage. As witness to this narrative in my own life, seeing Kelly, Neil and Agnes navigate their journey with pain, love and growth, and being able to laugh through it with them was a unique, fulfilling personal experience. I can only hope that director Tim Hoare’s elegant production brings similar but unique experiences to audiences who see it, too.
Jellyfish is on a the National Theatre until 16th July. More info and tickets here.