Honestly it’s quite annoying but, since it was placed there by the absolute babes at the Bush Theatre, I’m going to let it slide.
Regular readers will know about, and likely be bored of, my love for The Bush. Their programming is so bold and so consistently well executed that it’s hard not to love them. I’ve never seen a bad show there. Until this production, ‘there’ has only meant their main house. But I can now add their dinky (60 seat, by my count) and adorable Studio to my list as well. Dinky, adorable AND AIR CONDITIONED I should say, given the UK is currently melting.
Studio theatres are exciting and also dangerous spaces in my experience. Put a bad show in one and you have an absolutely excruciatingly awful night for all concerned. Put a mediocre show in one and the effect is not much better. But a good show, or a great show, with a cast and creative team who are fully committed to their studio is more or less the best thing. Jellyfish, The Bush’s current offering, is very much in the latter category.
Written by Ben Weatherill, Jellyfish tells the story of Kelly and Neil, who meet and fall in love amidst the glamour of Skegness. Kelly’s mum, Agnes, does not approve of Neil. What makes Jellyfish more than just your average love story/family drama is that Kelly happens to have Down’s Syndrome, thus opening up a whole other level of complicated emotional and ethical meat for the characters and the plot to chew on. Honestly, I loved this play. On quality of writing alone, it may actually be my favourite Bush production so far. It’s funny. It’s charming (not a word I would have much associated with the Bush before). It has so much heart and humanity. It’s complicated. It’s uplifting. It has characters who are lovable and flawed. It has awkward dancing to Tom Jones.
It’s also incredibly ambitious, which I think I love most of all. The issues it deals with are difficult and complicated, especially its discussion of the rights and expectations of people with disabilities (as well as Kelly, there is also Dominic who has Asperger’s). The relationship between Kelly and Agnes is key to this: Agnes terrified for her (grown up) daughter and the sort of life she’ll have, Kelly longing for independence and the ability to make her own choices and mistakes. The inevitable discussions around whether Agnes wishes she’d have known that Kelly had Down’s Syndrome before she was born, and what Agnes would have done if she did. Choices, the lack of them and the importance of the right to have them. In the wrong hands, this could have been a disastrous area for a playwright to probe but Weatherill does so with such sensitivity - which is different, by the way, to saying he doesn’t have anything important or uncomfortable to say - that it totally won me over. In its portrayal of the mother/daughter relationship, it’s a really interesting piece to see so soon after My Name Is Lucy Barton too.
The production supporting Weatherill’s play is superb. First of all, sand notwithstanding, I am fully obsessed with Amy Jane Cook’s clever, bold and vivid design. Not only is it an evocative and pleasingly literal homage to the Great British Seaside, it’s also extremely clever. Bits of the stage pop up and pop out to become benches and baths. An apparently discarded old arcade sign turns out to actually be a table. It’s just so cool. Even the tonnes of sand that carpet the theatre are cool when they’re not mostly in my fucking shoes. Tim Hoare is fantastically assured in the director’s chair and his production is brave and ballsy but also touchingly naturalistic (it didn’t hugely surprise me when I read that he had worked on The Ferryman too). Jamie Platt’s lighting is gorgeously effective. I loved the use of neon signs and an accompanying colour pallet.
The show is cast wonderfully. Sarah Gordy, as Kelly, is endlessly charming and watchable. It’s little surprise to read in accompanying press for the show that the part was pretty much written for her. Frankly you don’t have to read that, it’s fairly obvious from her performance and general swagger. Nicky Priest is a fantastically funny Dominic. He gets the majority of the best lines and delivers them with utter relish. Penny Layden has arguably the most difficult part as Agnes and is superb, an absolute class act. Touching, infuriating, never not sympathetic. My favourite performance though came from Ian Bonar as shy, geeky and lovable Neil. I just couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was on stage and he gives a performance of such detail (the joys of a studio) and humanity that I fell in love with him a little bit. It’s a great foursome, a particular joy to watch in such a small space.
I think I’ve said before that I’m getting a bit bored of writing nice things about shows at The Bush and yet here we are. Again. Jellyfish is such a lovely, complex, inspiring thing. If you’re feeling a bit blue about the world - and if you’re not then you’re not paying attention - then this is the play for you.
Jellyfish is in the Studio at The Bush until 21st July.
My seat for Jellyfish was kindly provided by The Bush and I attended press night. There’s no numbered seating (it’s unreserved but no sight line issues to worry about) and my seat immediately in front of the tech would normally cost £20.