Playwright Ben Weatherill is right to call Jellyfish a love story. Set in Skegness, it tells the story of a relationship between Kelly (Sarah Gordy), who has Downs Syndrome, and Neil (Sion Daniel Young), who does not. The coupling creates controversy. Family members, colleagues, and the wider community all have something to say about propriety, ability, and sex.
Love.. is the battleground of Weatherhill’s piece.
Weatherill’s words carefully unpack prejudices in the opening and closing scenes, and directly address the ‘problem’ in the middle. Framing discussions about how Kelly likes her fish and chips (no sauces, not too hot), are wider concerns about Kelly’s own aptitude and autonomy in the modern world. And yet her voice is estranged from the conversation.
Like real arguments, the arguments between characters in Jellyfish are all slightly unfulfilling and reveal personal inadequacies far more than strengths. This is a real point of clarity in Weatherill’s writing: characters constantly try and educate each other yet regularly fail to get their points across. Kelly’s overprotective mother Agnes (Penny Layden), sees the relationship between Kelly and Neil as a point of exploitation; a societal disparity within which there can be no equivalence of love. As such, she is on a crusade, and her crusader mentality only complicates a flourishing intimacy with problems of distance and secrecy.
Love then, is the battleground of Weatherhill’s piece. How to love, and who to love, is what is at stake. This is often captivating, but the sense of threat in Weatherhill’s script is, on the whole, low. Some aspects of Kelly and Neil’s relationship felt too safe to fail, but perhaps this is Weatherhill’s point. Jellyfish is a largely gentle script, with its momentum sustained by small moments of domestic humour in a penny-arcade and unlavish setting. The through-line works and wraps itself around an audience satisfyingly, but there is capacity within this love story to really play with the idea of why relationships fail, and how they can be sabotaged by others.
Ultimately, this play is made whole by Sarah Gordy’s meteoric performance. Her Kelly is mischievous and direct, sexually aware and assertive. Director Tim Hoare’s vision of the piece was one where the actors can shine on their own, where stillness is a strength, and where all action takes place against a Skegness landscape of fish and chips, supermarkets, and call-centres. Skegness is neither praised nor pilloried in the play. Skegness is simply not the focus of this play.
The scene transitions in Jellyfish deserve special note. They were relaxed whilst still being efficient. They also reinforced a feeling of palpable sensitivity that saturates the show. At one point, Gordy raised her hand to request assistance to stand from one of the stage crew, who supported her as she stood. In a play above love and acceptance, it was touching to see the stage management reflect these same values of intimacy.
Jellyfish opens with an image of Kelly, an ardent beachcomber, holding a crab she has found washed up on a stretch of beach. And the play closes with an image of something else, washed up – but not necessarily abandoned. This is the beating heart in Weatherhill’s play – ‘washed up’ and ‘abandoned’ are very different things. Beachcombing is a process of discovery and patience – characteristics in short supply today.
It should also be noted that Sarah Gordy has the most infectious and mischievous laugh in British theatre. Long may that laugh entertain us.