Jellyfish: exploring the sex life of a woman with Down's syndrome

In the National Theatre's new play, Kelly is 27, a virgin and desperate to know what sex is like. 

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“Can you hear that sound?” asks Kelly, holding one finger up in the air. “It’s my virginity, screaming.” Her virginity has good reason to protest. She’s 27 and desperate to discover what sex is like. She also has Down’s syndrome. Her mother thinks her boyfriend Neil is grooming her, preying on her vulnerability. Kelly disagrees. She just wants a shag.

Jellyfish was developed for the actor Sarah Gordy, who plays Kelly, and it shows. Ben Weatherill’s script is sweet and sharp, played against a gaudy Pleasure Beach sign half-submerged in sand, like Planet of the Apes transported to Skegness.

The story begins with Kelly, her mother Agnes and a dead crab. Kelly is fascinated by it, wants to know its name, takes a photo on her mum’s phone and makes it the screensaver. From the start, the question of Kelly’s ability to look after herself is left hanging in the air. Is Agnes (Penny Layden) over-protective or just protective enough? She instantly dislikes Neil, played with doe-eyed tenderness by Sion Daniel Young, because he is not disabled. She tries to set up Kelly with Dominic, who has Asperger’s, instead.

Gordy is the best-known actor with Down’s in Britain, and this production could not exist without the realness she brings to it. Mockery, condescension, difficulty in communicating: these are Kelly’s problems, but they don’t disappear when Gordy steps off stage. She occasionally fluffs her lines, going back to start again. It doesn’t feel awkward; it’s more like a challenge: you’re in my world now, drop your expectations and accept my rules.

Like his character, Dominic, Nicky Priest is on the autistic spectrum. He captures both the comic bluntness and the touching vulnerability of the condition beautifully. (His opening gambit to Neil, when they finally meet, is “So I hear you’re uncircumcised?” Neil looks at him, unfazed, and makes the connection: You must be Dominic.) 

This is the first time I’ve seen a play in what the National Theatre calls a “relaxed environment”. The audience is free to leave and re-enter the auditorium (although only a few did) and there was a chill-out room nearby with squishy pillows. The production avoids sudden loud noises and the house lights are lowered less than normal. All that makes it more welcoming for those with autism or learning disabilities, and there were several people with Down’s in the audience. The idea is a great one and I’m glad to see it in action.

While this is a play specifically about disability, it is also about universal themes of adulthood and independence. Looking at Gordy’s young-old face – she is 15 years older than her character – it is easy to see how she is infantilised by the world around her. Her mother does it too, for more understandable reasons. She has to shave Kelly’s legs for her, otherwise her daughter takes chunks out of her skin. Can Kelly consent to sex? Can she have a baby of her own? Can someone who needs looking after themselves become a mother?

Without Agnes in the mix, Jellyfish could lapse into soppiness: love conquers all. But it doesn’t. Neil’s co-workers piss on his clothes, seeing him as a pervert. Their relationship will never be simple. When he discovers that Kelly is pregnant, he tells Agnes that he doesn’t care if the baby has Down’s. After all, any baby is a “gift”. Agnes looks at him with hardened eyes. To a single mother, a baby with a disability didn’t feel much like a gift, no matter how many people told her so.

I wanted more of this, because our attitudes to disability are so ripe for dissection. The play deals beautifully with mainstream society’s desire to desexualise disabled people, treating them as perpetual children. It is shocking to see Kelly tell dirty jokes, to dance, to tell Neil she’s horny. But it pokes at something nastier, too. Many people would prefer not to see disabled people at all, to avoid confronting the reality of their existence. Late in the play, Dominic wonders to Kelly if people like them will exist at all in a few decades’ time.

For now, though, the idea of “specialness” is a cover for the brutal, thankless work of caring labour. Kelly loves her mother, but she still spits on her when she’s angry. At the end of the play, we find the pair of them back on the beach, but this time Kelly is prodding a jellyfish. It is soft and slithery, and just as dead as the crab.

So what is the best way to live: with a hard shell to protect yourself, or formless and transparent, so potential predators look straight through you?

Helen Lewis is a staff writer on the Atlantic

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation