'Jellyfish' at the National Theatre - Review

This new play from writer Ben Weatherill, now at the Dorfman Theatre after opening at the Bush Theatre last year, is a powerful, necessary and thought-provoking piece which also finds time to be deeply heartwarming and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Jellyfish tells the story of Kelly (Sarah Gordy), a young woman falling in love for the first time by the seaside. The object of her affections is Neil (Siôn Daniel Young), a kind, gentle man who works at the local arcade. Neil and Kelly make each other laugh, and being together makes them happy. A straightforward love story? Not quite.

Sarah Gordy, who - like Kelly - has Down's Syndrome, is dazzling in this brilliant role. She commands the stage with strength, wit and a delightful sense of mischief. An in-demand actress and prominent Mencap ambassador, Gordy recently became the first woman with Down's Syndrome to be made an MBE, and to receive an honorary degree, and it's easy to see why she's been given these accolades. It is a searing, unforgettable performance.

The fantastic Penny Layden, playing Kelly's supportive, protective mum Agnes, brings the wrath of a lioness protecting her cub, making it abundantly clear where Kelly gets the fire in her belly from. She loves her daughter very much, but somehow struggles to believe that anyone else could. Siôn Daniel Young's performance as Neil is perfectly pitched, convincing the audience of the integrity of his feelings for Kelly with a quiet compassion and endearing vulnerability.

Special mention must go to Nicky Priest as Dominic, a young man Agnes puts forth as a more appropriate potential boyfriend for Kelly (because he has Asperger's syndrome, as does Priest). Priest's phenomenal comic timing and deadpan delivery had us crying with laughter; he steals every scene he's in.

The windswept Skegness setting is depicted with evocative simplicity by designer Amy Jane Cook, lighting designer Jamie Platt and sound designer Ella Wahlström, and the piece is confidently directed by Tim Hoare.

At a time when both the arts and provision for people with disabilities are struggling from a lack of funding and support, this vital play shows why it is so important to nurture and promote them. Every performance of Jellyfish takes place in a 'relaxed environment', with a chillout space available in the foyer and a visual story downloadable online for anyone who might need them. The impressive commitment to accessibility has an obvious impact - I spotted several people in the audience with Down's Syndrome, relishing the rare opportunity to see themselves represented onstage.

This is a challenging play, asking lots of difficult questions. What it is love, what does it mean, and who deserves to experience it? There are two love stories here - the bond between a mother and child, and the dizzying joy of first love. We watch these familiar, universal stories unfold in refreshing and rarely-seen ways, and the result is something truly magical.

Jellyfish is open now, and will be at the Dorfman Theatre until 16th July 2019.