Love may be a universal emotion, but when romance blossoms between Kelly, a 27 year old woman with Down’s Syndrome, and able-bodied Neil (Sion Daniel Young), suspicion surrounds their passion in Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish. Blocking this budding seaside romance set in Skegness is Kelly’s tightly coiled mum Agnes (Penny Layden), a walking metaphor for the unrelenting pressure many parents of vulnerable people find themselves exhibiting, writes Carolyn Hart Taylor.
Layden excels in her role; tense and brittle she moves stiffly about the stage wearing a lifetime of worry, portraying how her over-protectiveness has wrung her out to dry. Despite her lion-hearted sacrifices to protect Kelly, spitting venomously at Neil that he is ‘predatory’, the audience realises there are no medals for her efforts and that while demonstrating that unconditional love hovers between caring and control, it is ultimately a denial of her daughter’s needs. Ferociously attempting to stamp out the blossoming relationship between the two, she strives to send Neil fleeing Skegness, provoking us to question our own views on this growing romance. Alarm bells ring, we are alerted to the fact that society has no celebrated examples of loving relationships between those with Down’s Syndrome and the so called ‘ordinary folk’.
Yet Sarah Gordy, a Down’s Syndrome actor herself, shows us Kelly is no shrinking violet. Uncorrupted by worldly fears, she possesses an enviable freedom as her bold, uncensored nature and razor-sharp wit leave us questioning what frightens us about differently abled people having agency and choosing who they fall in love with. Gordy beautifully expresses Kelly’s lifetime dilemma: her mother telling her, ‘You’re just like everyone else’, when the reality is that she has to claw away to make even the smallest decision for herself.
Equally though, Gordy invites us to see Kelly’s vulnerability when, finding herself pregnant, she is unable to convince ‘society’ that she needs access to the morning after pill. Again, others have written the script of what her life should entail, pregnancy not even considered. Rallying against these barriers literally consumes Kelly as she perpetually strives for validation.
Serious stuff, but saturated with astonishing amounts of humour, leaving us hugely entertained after a thoroughly good night out.
Jellyfish is own at the National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 until July 16th. Times: 7.30pm; 2.30pm matinees Tues & Sat. Admission: £15 – £55. Phone: 0207 452 3000
Photos: Helen Murray