The Shell Seekers

Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham
Based on the novel of Rosamunde Pilcher
Theatre Royal, Newcastle: on tour

It's probably very un-PC to say so, but this play, and the novel from which it came, is undoubtedly a woman's play (and novel). Now that may very well bring the wrath of the feminists crashing down on my head but it is comment based upon observation of the audience and listening to their conversations at the interval and after the curtain fell. It is a story of family relationships, of love and marriage, and good triumphs in the end: the selfish family members see the error of their ways, the faithful servant is well rewarded, the worm (underdog husband of the selfish daughter) turns and the young couple will marry and live happliy ever after in the way that the heroine - Penelope who is superbly played by Stephanie Cole - did not because of the loss of the love of her life (who just happens to be the image of the young man) was lost during the war.

It certainly did get "much tears in the playing of it", not only because the adaptation is very well written but also because the production values - the acting, the design, the lighting, the sound - are very high. Not a weak link anywhere.

Central to the play is a painting, "The Shell Seekers", and the set and lighting design echo the painting image. The stage - not just the proscenium arch but the entrances into the wings - is set within the frame of a painting, and the flown-in flats which back each individual scene each have their own frames.

In addition, the images created by director, set and lighting designer are very painterly, with, in particular, the Cornish beach scenes doing a very good job of recreating the light for which St Ives is famous.

Then there's the soundscape - subtle and understated but very effective. Here is a team - Simon Higlett (designer), Jack Thompson (lighting), Clement Rawling (sound), under the sure direction of David Taylor - which has created the play's world of the landscape painter for us without in any way dominating the on-stage action. Even in the final scene - the reading of Penelope's will - which is otherwise lit in what would might call an effectively utilitarian way, she (for she is on-stage) positively glows whilst the others are mundane in comparison, an effect achieved by subtle use of colour and side- (and back-? I'm not entirely sure) lighting.

To finish a review of this production without mentioning the cast would be completely wrong. It is a very strong cast, from the wonderful performance of veteran actress Stephanie Cole to the very promising young Katherine Heath, just two years out of drama school.

Such a pity I wan't terribly keen on the play itself - but perhaps that's my loss!

Steve Orme, by the way, saw and reviewed the autumn tour.

"The Shell Seekers" tours to Mold, Bath, Colchester, Coventry, Salford, Truro and Southend until; 20th March.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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