Theatre review: Jellyfish, New Theatre

Jellyfish poses a question, what does self-determination mean in practice?

Kelly (Audrey O’Connor) is a young woman who has big dreams and ambitions for herself. But most of all she wants a boyfriend, and she thinks she’s found the right one and is excited when he likes her back. She is close to her mother, Agnes (Siobhan Lawless), who wants Kelly to be independent. She also wants her daughter to find love, but what she wants most of all is to protect Kelly from anything bad happening to her.

Kelly (O’Connor) has Down syndrome. Neil, her new boyfriend (Joseph Tanti), doesn’t have Down syndrome, which becomes the source of conflict. Initially the audience is left to bathe in the sweetness and awkwardness of the young couple’s innocent infatuation. Kelly has her first kiss, and really likes it! Just as quickly the new romance is shattered as Kelly reveals this news to her mother. Agnes’ own biases and truth are examined under the light of a new reality.

This subtle but cleverly written play is a slow and meandering journey through the everyday. It doesn’t aim to be sensational, but simply to build naturalistic characters and place them under the pressures caused by life’s duplicity.

The most interesting question of the play is when Kelly asks Agnes why she has always told her that she can do anything that she puts her mind to, and now that she [Kelly] is doing what she wants to do, her mother tells her she can’t. 

Ben Weatherill’s script intelligently examines the necessarily protective parent, and pits them against the fiercely independent child. By creating a coming-of-age narrative where one of the characters has Down syndrome, Jellyfish revolts against years of discourse that has excluded people with disabilities from romantic love stories. 

Lawless’ portrayal of Agnes is undecorated. She communicates the resistance and internal turmoil of her character with simple honesty. O’Connor is direct and fittingly awkward as Kelly. Her dirty humour and straightforward delivery have the audience charmed and entertained. However, the most brilliant character of the show is Dominic, played by Daniel Mackenzie, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. Mackenzie’s Dominic is vivid and conspicuous. Every moment he is on stage the audience is all his.

At one point in the performance this reviewer attended, Mackenzie’s socially awkward Dominic delivered a characteristically blunt and inappropriate line that sent the audience into spasms of uncontrollable laughter until the actors broke character too. It was the highlight of the show.

Read: Theatre review: Underneath Ms Archer, St Martins Theatre

In the beginning I found the show quite laboured and awkward in delivery. But just as quickly, I was charmed by and invested in the narrative and the characters onstage.

Jellyfish is yet another important piece of independent theatre. It offers the powerful message that, with support, love is everyone’s right.

Jellyfish by Ben Weatherill
New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown Sydney
Director: Deborah Jones
Set Designer: James Smithers
Lighting and Sound Designer: Michael Schell
Costume Designer: Louise Fischer
Assistant Director: Olivia Bartha
Vocal Coach: Linda Nicholls-Gidley
Intimacy Director: Shondelle Pratt
Stage Manager: Rosane McNamara
Assistant Stage Manager: Georgie Moore
Operator: James Hewish

Cast: Siobhan Lawless, Daniel Mackenzie, Audrey O’Connor, Joseph Tanti
Tickets: $22-$35

Jellyfish will be performed until 1 July 2023.

Christina is a freelance writer and multidisciplinary artist. The 2021 Program Officer for The Writing Zone and a junior editor at the Sydney Review of Books. She is the Associate Producer at WestWords and the founder of Writing Black Australia, an online platform for the amplification of Black Australian Literary Work. A graduate of the UOW Creative Writing Program, her area of research is in framing the African diasporic voice of contemporary Australian literature.