Review by Abbie Gallagher
Jellyfish by Ben Weatherill has made its Australian premiere at the beloved New Theatre in Newtown with industry legend Deborah Jones at the directing helm.
Set in Britain, Jellyfish professes to tell a touching and beautiful story about single mother Agnes (Siobhan Lawless) and her daughter Kelly (Audrey O’Connor), who has Down Syndrome. 27 year old Kelly loves the beach. She’s fascinated by the unique creatures found in the ocean. She has a good job. She’s finding her way. And unbeknownst to Agnes, she’s even found a boyfriend.
The audience laughed a lot. The scene transitions were smooth. The music was fun. The set and lighting were top-notch. Casting an actor with Down Syndrome to play a Down Syndrome character is absolutely what needs to happen and is a great cause for celebration. Themes such as living with any disability should be addressed and discussed. It’s reality. I love seeing these topics exactly explored and I applaud this casting choice. We need open and honest dialogue about the hidden truths of the human experience.
Why? I asked myself. Why was I sitting there having a completely different experience of Jellyfish? What am I missing that the rest of the theatregoers are so clearly getting out of this?
Let me make one thing crystal clear. No reviewer worth their salt goes into a show wanting to dislike it or walk out disappointed me. None. Certainly not me.
I want nothing more than to be enraptured by the artists, transported from the real world for just a couple of hours and return to everyday life with a precious experience. I genuinely hate to report that I didn’t feel this way with Jellyfish, as much as I wanted to.
But why? What did I miss?
Having had time to reflect, I believe I know the answer.
But first, I’d like to acknowledge the highlights of the show, of which there were several.
The aforementioned lighting design by Michael Schell was beautifully crafted. His clever use of shadows and colour truly helped draw me into each scene and establish the mood. Joseph Tanti’s performance as Kelly’s boyfriend Neil can only be described as delightful, and Daniel MacKenzie’s Dominic, while criminally under-utilised in the text, definitely got the biggest laugh out of me during the evening. And again, I want to emphasise how glad I am to see disabilities being brought to light and seeing diverse actors onstage.
But in the end, I’ve realised why I left the theatre feeling so very let down.
It’s the script. More specifically, the pacing of it.
I’m not blaming the actors, or even necessarily the direction. I’m blaming a tissue-paper thin script that moved so fast, even Speedy Gonzales would advise them to hit the brakes.
To give an example, the heart of the story is supposedly Agnes and her unwillingness to allow her daughter to grow up. But in execution, her initial reaction to Kelly telling her about Neil is one of delighted surprise. But when she discovers Neil is not disabled, it’s like a switch flips and for the rest of the show Agnes is literally out for Neil’s blood. Now, I can absolutely understand this immediate suspicion. Of course she wants to make sure that her vulnerable daughter isn’t being exploited. What doesn’t make sense is her continued hostility, and a frankly astounding and absolute refusal to accept Neil’s mere existence. She berates and threatens this poor guy for the rest of the show, despite no evidence of him being anything other than a kind and supportive partner. Her only reason seems to be his lack of disability. That’s it. Granted, some parents do act like this. But there was no rhyme or reason with Agnes. No build up or even a hint of her being overprotective. A complete lack of anything to justify her behaviour, at least none that I saw.
The entire show was like this. Each new transition led to another dialogue-heavy scene that would start flat, then suddenly become an emotionally charged affair or some earth-shattering reveal made. These “moments” were treated like we should have seen them coming a mile away, but that’s just it. I didn’t see anything coming.
It’s possible that I missed something due to a substantial amount of inaudible dialogue, but in the moment, every scene just felt like filler while all the crucial story beats occurred offstage. From Neil’s introduction to Kelly’s decision to leave home, nothing seemed to occur organically. At no point did I ever feel like the emotional moments were earned or even warranted, to be blunt.
Part of my confusion came from a complete lack of communication on the timeline. There was no indication of when each scene was occurring.
Hoping to gain some clarity afterwards, I tracked down the script on Kindle and was genuinely shocked to discover that the scenes took place as long as six months apart. I honestly do not understand why these timeskips were not established, on the stage or in the programme.
But even with this information, it still doesn’t change the gaping script holes. I still didn’t believe the character’s decisions, their emotional journey or their actions as authentic.
I do not enjoy saying a show left me feeling empty, but unfortunately Jellyfish did. It’s a painful statement to make, especially because I could see the cast and crew’s undeniable affection for the text. I could see and appreciate the work that went into the production. And maddeningly, I saw the potential of a truly heartfelt and meaningful story buried deep inside a flawed and often superficial script. It’s in there, I know it. But for now, it continues to drift aimlessly in an ocean of missed opportunity.