Anybody who’s the parent of a young person with learning disabilities knows that sexuality is one of the biggest challenges you face. How do you balance respect for your child’s autonomy with protecting him or her from people who intend harm? Safeguarding is a huge responsibility, not just for parents but also people who care for the learning disabled, and there are too many examples of sexual exploitation for us to be complacent.
Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish, which I caught near the end of its run at the National Theatre, faces up to this fraught question directly and is, for the most part, an absolute triumph. Written with scorching wit and crackle, it tells the story of Kelly, a young woman with Down Syndrome, who lives with Agnes, her working class single mum, in Skegness. Kelly’s favourite outing is to the beach, where we first meet her holding up a huge crab for inspection. She soon starts a relationship with the kindly, neuro-typical (and inexplicably middle class) Neil who works on the funfair. But when they start having sex (very much at Kelly’s initiative), Agnes is furious with the young man, and worried sick for her daughter. And when the inevitable happens and Kelly gets pregnant, all hell breaks out.
Tim Hoare’s beautifully designed production unfolds with admirable economy and Weatherill’s funny and frequently surprising dialogue is brilliantly well served by his cast: Penny Layden, magnificent as the tough and desperately anxious Agnes, and Sarah Gordy, herself Down’s, wonderful as the indefatigable Kelly. Siôn Daniel Young plays Kelly’s lover with tremendous delicacy and the fourth (possibly unnecessary) character, Dominic, a young lad with Asperger’s is acutely caught by Nicky Priest (himself, I gather, Asperger’s).
For all its jokes and exuberant energy, however, the play is an uncomfortable watch, especially for those of us with disabled offspring. And this is where my occasional reservation creeps in. There’s a tendency for the writing to trip from shock to shock, as if the sexual feelings of a young woman with Down Syndrome are something we’re meant to find surprising. By confronting this question so directly, Weatherill is doing neuro-divergent people a favour; but the danger is that the play (which has some of the strengths of a soap opera, despite a disobliging comment about Casualty) sometimes feels like a freak show, and the night I went the National Theatre audience gasped every time Kelly showed her entirely natural and unsurprising desires. The slight danger is that the play astonishes audiences by its sense of the exceptional rather than universalises by its common humanity.
Much as I admired Siôn Daniel Young’s terrific performance as Neil, I wondered whether Weatherill could possibly have explored the contradictions in his character more fully. Agnes reminds him on several occasions of the level of responsibility that he’s taken on, but I had little sense (except for a drowned sister) of what had brought him to the place where he embraces such an undoubted challenge. Certainly, while the play has justified optimism about Kelly’s autonomy, it doesn’t sentimentalise the realities of her disabilities, which Sarah Gordy’s touching and beautifully judged performance makes so clear. There’s a brilliant scene in a hotel bedroom when you see why it might be difficult for Neil to stay with Kelly, but their reconciliation isn’t really explained. We gather that Neil has been sacked from his job as a result of this relationship but there’s little sense of the journey he’s taken to get to such a point that he’s prepared to make such a sacrifice. In other words Neil’s love for Kelly is often stated, but the writing doesn’t quite make the nature of its radical ambition manifest.
The third area that I’d have liked Weatherill to explore more is the social context. Yes, we know that Kelly’s mum works in Morrison’s and is obviously not rich, but it would be good to know how she’s been brought up and educated, what social services have offered and the many struggles that Agnes has no doubt had to fight. There’s no discussion of Mental Capacity (a hugely important subject for learning disabled people) and when Kelly gets pregnant there’s little sense of the support offered by social workers, the health service or disability charities. My point is that society has a responsibility towards Kelly and her mother, and I wish the play had recognised that, or at least challenged it for failing to deliver on it.
I feel a bit mean spirited in offering these reservations, because Jellyfish is a groundbreaking piece of work and I really enjoyed it, and its presence at the National Theatre (from the Bush, where it started out) should not be underestimated. In fact, in the nearly forty years I’ve been going to the NT, I think this is the first time I’ve seen a Down Syndrome actor onstage, certainly in a leading part. The walls are finally crumbling and Ben Weatherill and his amazing cast deserve the highest praise for taking a battering ram to the old certainties and making audiences - and critics and theatre managers - think again. Jellyfish should have a further life, and why not in the West End? I’d certainly buy a ticket.