HAVING never read the book, I did a little Googling before taking my seat at the Civic.
It seems Rosamund Pilcher’s novel The Shell Seekers was a huge hit when it came out in 1987 and was later turned into a mini series and a TV movie.
The latter development seems a perfect fit once you’ve seen the play — the easy pace and peaceful setting, albeit punctuated by family strife, is tailor-made for that Sunday afternoon slot.
This stage version is equally placid, more a gentle scenic drive than an emotional roller coaster.
Its title refers to a valuable painting lovingly rendered by central character Penelope Keeling’s late father Lawrence Stern, a landscape artist whose works were unappreciated by his entitled, brattish grandkids during their childhood but are now eyed as the source of a small fortune now they are greedy grown-ups.
The masterpiece itself is unseen, merely gazed at by the cast as if hung above the front row of the audience, but we’re told it’s worth a hefty £500k.
Newly out of hospital, frail Penelope (Gloria Elford Box) stands firm as obnoxious offspring Noel and Nancy (Greg Muscroft and Tracey Briggs) push her to cash in the coveted oil work and two other unfinished paintings so they can get their hands on a share of the proceeds.
The heart gently weeps when it transpires even the less shouty and disagreeable daughter, Olivia (Sue Briggs), will leave mum in the lurch when she gets a better offer.
These are distant, self-centred types who opine about how someone should “be there” for their mother but won’t put in the hard yards themselves.
They’ve even set her up in a Cotswolds cottage while she hankers for the Cornish sands of her youth.
Pilcher’s plot engineers a pair of young companions for Penelope (one of them, bizarrely, is Olivia’s ex-boyfriend’s daughter) which sets her off on a walk down the memory lane of teenage romance and Second World War strife.
These scenes, played in flashback, are where the production peaks.
Phoenix newcomer Yasmin Angove-Middleton makes for an engaging Young Penelope, while Lee Sanderson also shines in the two roles of her soldier beau Richard and the shy gardener, Danus, who is conveniently a dead ringer for Penelope’s late, great first love.
A hat tip also to Mark Kilburn-Stones, who played a boozy, unpleasant uncle in last winter’s
Seasons Greetings but brings a moving vulnerability to Lawrence in a standout scene where he relates to Richard the impact of an air raid.
As the play progresses, the source of Penelope’s defiant attachment to the titular painting becomes apparent.
It would be a stretch to describe key plot developments as “twists” — in truth, there are few genuine surprises, although there is some eagerness to discover if the grasping kids will ultimately get what they want or what they deserve.
Elford Box’s Penelope makes for a pleasant central character with glints of steel beyond her soft exterior and her sense of calm is totally in tune with the easy pace.
Her perfect reading of Louise McNeice’s poem Autumn Journal is one of the highlights.
Overall, it’s hard to shake the feeling the cast’s talents aren’t exactly being stretched and the two-hour play could do with losing at least 20 minutes.
But if a gentle diversion on a October night is what you’re after, this examination of one woman’s life in her late autumn years might well leave you with a warm glow.
Just don’t expect too many fireworks.
The Shell Seekers is at Rotherham Civic Theatre until Saturday.
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