She Sells Sea Shells: I ain’t buyin’ ’em. (But they’re pretty.)

publicity photo for She Sells Sea Shells

Krista Skwarok and Isaac Li in She Sells Sea Shells (Photo cropped from an original by Nancy Caldwell)

Watching She Sells Sea Shells is like watching somebody you like dating the wrong guy: admirable artists have worked very hard and very skilfully on this production, but Helen Eastman’s script isn’t worthy of their talents and attention.

I’m going to chew on the script for a bit before I get into the interpretive successes.

Warning: there are going to be almost as many spoilers in this review as there are in the script itself.

She Sells Sea Shells is about groundbreaking nineteenth century English palaeontologist Mary Anning. Right off the top, a lecturer tells us that Anning’s fossil finds at Lyme Regis changed our understanding of evolution but, until recently, she was “little known, little studied, little celebrated, by virtue of being both female and decidedly working class.”

In that statement, the lecturer gives away the whole story — and its themes. For the rest of the evening, we watch as Anning makes discoveries and gets ignored. No surprises for us.

Crucially, as presented by playwright Helen Eastman, Anning has no agency. She rails against the unfairness of her situation, but her complaints are essentially soliloquies. She never tries to do anything to correct the situation. I’m not arguing the historical accuracy of this broad picture — or its injustice; I’m saying that the character’s enforced passivity makes for flat storytelling.

Richer development of relationships might have made for a more dynamic narrative but, in Eastman’s script, relationships are shallowly developed.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Birch was a patron who cared about the Anning family’s poverty, for instance, but he barely makes an appearance in Eastman’s script and the playwright doesn’t begin to speculate on the nature of the personal interactions between Anning and Birch.

Instead, Eastman hangs a historical revue off her weak storyline. A section titled “A Beginner’s Guide to Cleaning a Geological Specimen” tells us more than we need to know about the subject. And “A Brief History of Geology in Ten Men” makes its point about sexism by introducing us to a bunch of guys whose names we won’t remember.

There’s a difference between presenting research and telling a story. And there’s a difference between good intentions and good art.

But the artists in this production do an excellent job with what they have.

I’m thinking in particular of Sarah Rodgers’s direction. With the help of choreographer Melissa Sciaretta and sound designer Christopher King, she turns the specimen-cleaning passage into a poetic movement riff and the male-dominated history text into a vaudevillian song-and-dance routine.

You can see the confidence of Rodgers’s vision in her coordination of all of the production elements, including the acting.

Brian Ball’s set is a star. Anning’s father was a cabinet maker and Ball gives us a wall of cabinetry. Props emerge from cupboards, a kitchen table slides out and, when central doors are opened, they reveal a painting of the seaside. Lighting designer Brad Trenaman does an almost musical job of highlighting the details.

And Krista Skwarok delivers an impassioned, no-nonsense performance as Mary, lightening it with playfulness and wit. This is a huge accomplishment for such a young actor. Without Skwarok’s investment, this mounting would have been dead. (Young actors Hannah Pearson and Isaac Li perform all of the secondary roles.)

Next time out, I hope they all get to date the right guy, so to speak. I hope they will be able to apply their talents to material that gives more back to them — and us.

SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS by Helen Eastman. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A United Players of Vancouver production. Recorded production viewed online on January 23. Running until February 14. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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