The Shell Seekers

Carlton Players
Birkenhead Little Theatre
19th-26th September 2009

Reviewed by Brian Gorman

Rosamunde Pilcher, prolific romance novelist, and the author of several Mills and Boon novels in her early career, made her major breakthrough with the 1987 bestseller The Shell Seekers. Adapted for the stage by Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham, it proved the perfect curtain raiser for he Birkenhead-based Carlton Players' new season.

This is a bittersweet tale of the last days of lonely widow Penelope Keeling (played with great poignancy by the charismatic Elaine Davie) battling to hold onto the ever-receding memories of a tragic wartime love affair, whilst her insensitive children are hell-bent on benefiting from the sale of her father's greatest painting, and the one closest to her heart - The Shell Seekers.

Through the course of the story, Penelope relives her life in flashback; revisiting her relationship with her beloved artist father (a delightful Reg Taylor), the anxieties of the Second World War, and her adulterous feelings for a dashing young soldier played by Nick Hawkswell.

The Shell Seekers is a great old-fashioned family saga that could easily fall flat unless played with relish, and an understanding that what is not being said is just as important as what is. It's a very talky piece of theatre, with little in the way of stage business, and no real sense of suspense.Thankfully, directors Joan Mason and Margaret Harland have a pair of steady hands on the tiller, and this grand ocean liner of a piece glides rather effortlessly into the audience's collective heart. Every character has their moment in the limelight, and is distinctively portrayed by the ensemble cast.

The most frightful of Penelope's offspring is the oily, ruthless, and utterly obnoxious Noel (played like a nightmarish Peter Mandelson by Matthew Smith). Noel is closely matched in selfishness by the upwardly mobile, class-conscious Nancy (Helen Rex, bouncy and exasperating whether in comfortable slippers or green wellies), whose downtrodden husband George (a nicely understated comic turn by Nick Fawdry) refuses to encourage her aspirational lifestyle. Their elegant, man-eating sister Olivia (the vivacious Carys Cooper in Joan Collins mode) is the only one of the repugnant brood to develop a conscience in time for it to be of much use to their long-suffering and unconditionally-loving mother. The scenes involving this trio of well-heeled horrors provide a fine contrast to the more poetic segments exploring Penelope's twilight hours, and the blossoming modern day romance between her young gardener Danus (Hawkswell again, successfully playing two such contrasting characters) and her ward Antonia (the lovely fresh-faced Lorna Wylie, who also plays the young Penelope).

A bright, spacious set with a centrally placed elegant gazebo effectively evokes the atmosphere of an English country garden, and gives the actors plenty of breathing space. My only criticism would be the sound effects, which were a little on the loud side in one particular scene, and proved a touch irritating when drowning out some of the dialogue.

Everything comes to a tearful yet optimistic finale with the enigmatic art dealer Mr Brookner (Keith Edwin Colwell oozing equal doses of integrity and dignity) helping everyone examine their individual shortcomings, and to face the future with hope and a renewed sense of purpose.

A final mention must go to the theatre staff; resplendent in attire, and cheerful of manner, who added immensely to the atmosphere of a traditional evening at the theatre.

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