Reviewed by Flossie Waite
An Intrepid Ensemble production
Reviewed at Mini VAULT Festival
For ages 7+
If good criticism is a conversation, then this review is fairly early on in the chat. Intrepid Ensemble spent only a handful of development days at the Old Vic before Jellyfish was performed at Mini VAULT Festival. Having seen the production at this initial scratch stage, please think of these musings as a breezy chinwag over a cuppa and a biscuit, rather than the beginnings of a formal debate.
The silent presence of the faceless jellyfish – captivating but eery, beautiful but capable of harm – is a symbol of mental illness. After moving house with his family, Tom’s dad changes. The sea calls to him, tentacles tap him on the shoulder, and eventually a giant glowing puppet stalks his movements and distracts his thoughts. Initially happy to play with the creature, Tom becomes increasingly distressed by the effect it has on his father, and the impact that’s having on his mother, and tries to get rid of it.
The jellyfish gives shape to something that is hard to sum up in words, that is perhaps easier to understand without words. To do this well takes time, time that is misspent on the lighthouse keeper’s strand of the narrative. Removing this character would allow longer to explore and focus on the relationships at the heart of the piece – between Tom, his parents and the jellyfish.
The jellyfish is a strong, brilliant metaphor, and should be left as such. You can see the sudden panic at the end of the production to clarify what it all means and to quickly tie up the loose ends for the young audience. The lighthouse keeper’s main function as a character, it appears, is to explain to Tom what the jellyfish is doing to his dad, and what can be done about it. It’s a wordy exchange that forms a misplaced conclusion to a production that, until this point, has employed visual imagery so effectively. It’s also brisk and informative, and ends the piece on a surprisingly didactic note.
It seems that Jellyfish emerged from a more mystery-laden original approach. The show’s blurb reads:
“After a difficult year Tom and his Mum move house, but it soon becomes clear that they’re sharing their new home with a stranger, a gigantic glowing jellyfish. When their extraordinary house guest begins to grow more and more troublesome, and with Tom’s Mum continuing to ignore it, Tom tries everything he can to rid them of this burdensome beast. Scaring it, trapping it, tricking it – nothing seems to work… Can Tom and his Mum learn to live with the animal in their attic?”
But that’s not the show I saw – for starters, the dad is absent, completely replaced by the haunting jellyfish. This describes a production that allows its audience to draw their own conclusions, that asks far more questions than it offers answers. Perhaps not all the young people watching would understand explicitly that it’s ‘about mental illness’ (maybe none of them would!), but they would definitely pick up the essential themes. Intrepid Ensemble should listen to their initial instincts and trust their audience.
If this seems an unfairly thorough review for a play that is still in Pampers, then it’s because my mum always told me you only hurt the ones you love. There is so much promising stuff here – Finn Anderson’s score, Smoking Apples’s puppet, lots of the script, the pared-back style – and I love the idea of Jellyfish.
Follow Children’s Theatre Reviews @ctheatrereviews