The Shell Seekers

Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham
Nottingham Theatre Royal, and touring
(2003)

Turning a best-selling novel into a play is potentially fraught with problems. What works on the page doesn't readily transfer to the stage; the playwright risks incurring the wrath of both the novelist and his or her readers if the production strays from the content or the mood of the book.

But when you've got a successful husband-and-wife writing team like Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham, you have few worries. They were responsible for the television hit No Honestly, helped to create the BBC's drama hit Take Three Girls and were a part of the small team of writers who came up with Upstairs Downstairs.

They've taken Rosamunde Pilcher's best-selling novel The Shell Seekers and turned it into a joyous tale of an English family whose differing views on life threaten to destroy their love for one another.

Although Pilcher denies that her novel is autobiographical, the play faithfully captures her life in Cornwall among painters and other artists, portraying an idyllic picture of creativity in atmospheric studios as well as the wonder of the Cornish air, towns and beaches.

The story is set in London and Cornwall between World War II and 1985. Recuperating after a heart attack, Penelope Keeling takes time to look back on her life and takes comfort in a painting called The Shell Seekers which was completed by her father before arthritis forced him to put down his brushes.

Her children discover the true value of their grandfather's work and are a little too eager to gain their inheritance early. But Penelope has other ideas and refuses to sell the painting, preferring to enjoy it for as long as possible before she dies.

Stephanie Cole is outstanding as Penelope. Seeing through the supposedly good intentions of her children, she becomes firm with them when necessary but is otherwise gentle without being genteel. She dominates the stage without being domineering.

The rest of the cast are nearly all vastly experienced actors who enhance the production without trying to grab the limelight.

Penelope's three children are superbly portrayed by Karen Drury (Olivia), the gushing daughter who's not as good as she seems; Veronica Roberts (frumpy Nancy), so annoyingly greedy you almost find yourself shouting at her selfishness; and Ian Shaw (Noel) who can't believe his mother isn't as money-grabbing as he is.

Martin Wimbush is delightful as Nancy's henpecked husband George and Paul Chapman as the arts expert Roy Bruckner gets one of the funniest lines in a witty script when Penelope asks him whether he's married: "Happily, no; unhappily, yes."

The whole thing is sensitively handled by American David Taylor who directed the feelgood comedy Moment of Weakness, starring Gwen Taylor and Michael Jayston, in the same venue earlier this year.

There were more elderly people in the Theatre Royal audience than usual, some attracted by their familiarity with Rosamund Pilcher, others enticed by the appearance of Stephanie Cole. Few would have been disappointed with what they saw.

"The Shell Seekers" tours until November 29th

Reviewer: Steve Orme