Wednesday 29 March 2023

Fisherman's Friends the Musical

 Curve, Leicester

28th March, 2023

Semi-circle, a cappella, striking sound

There’s no denying that the success story of Fisherman’s Friends is an interesting one. Formed in 1995 in Port Isaac, the Cornish folk group went from performing sea shanties locally to raise money for the lifeboats, to signing with Universal Music in 2010. A top 10 album, a spot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, and two feature films later, the story has now been turned into a musical. Was this inevitable? It certainly fits the template of similar British feel-good stories which inspired Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls (2003 film, 2009 play) and Simon Beaufoy’s The Fully Monty (1997 film, 2013 play): a bunch of reluctant performers proud of their local identity take centre stage and become an unlikely overnight sensation. Translated to the stage, Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is pleasingly genial. Well-sung and with a book by Amanda Whittington which serves the material well, James Grieve’s actor-muso production achieves the balance between musical theatre polish and folk group authenticity.

We hear how sea shanties, work-songs traditionally sung by men about fishing, distant wives and drink, have a 300-year history. We’re plunged into that sense of male camaraderie and hard work from the show’s opening moments. The light of a fishing trawler appears through the mist of the sea to reveal men at work singing shanties. Back on dry land, the singing and real ale don’t stop at their local pub. Like in Chris Foggin’s 2019 film, the conflict comes when down-on-his-luck music producer Danny (Jason Langley) arrives from London in his Chelsea tractor. Having lost his way and his job, he rocks up in Port Isaac completely ignorant of Cornwall, its people and, much to his dismay after parking his car on the beach, tidal movements. Stranded and with no money, he initially doesn’t have much luck with the locals: ‘Not much call for fizzy pop’ is barmaid Maggie’s (Susan Penhaligon) response when he asks for a lager. But when he hears the shanties, he’s exhilarated by their raw emotion, harmonising, call and response phrases and heavy rhythms. He also sees pound signs, not only for his own benefit but to help the fledgling pub and its young owners. Whilst there’s initially some scepticism mainly from James Gaddas’ character Jim, his Dad Jago (Robert Duncan), having recently retired and wanting to embrace life, persuades him to record an album. It’s easy to understand his cynicism. You could see the commodifying of songs passed down through the generations by a local community reproduced for mass entertainment as cultural tourism, something which the film, this musical and its audiences are contributing towards. On the other hand, maybe sharing the story and music of Fisherman’s Friends with a wider audience helps to reinforce identity and preserve cultural heritage. It’s Grieve’s intention for the audience to leave any cynicism at the door and simply enjoy the story’s whimsy.

The result is a well-produced new musical which mostly hits all the right notes. Lucy Osborne’s set and costumes achieve an attractive Cornish aesthetic. With its white-washed harbour walls, wooden steps, and thick jumpers, it could be sponsored by Cornwall’s Tourism Board. And the shanties themselves are extremely well-performed by the cast. We’re told that ‘trust, respect and community’ are their key pillars and that certainly rings true. What I really liked is that Grieve retains a rusticity to the piece which feels true. The on-stage band (led by MD James William-Pattison) interweave with the action to help people the stage with life. In a nice stroke of theatricality, the fishing trawler is attached to the set with ropes so that the fishermen have to (or at least appear to) pull the rope to create movement and thus heightening that sense of hard work.

David White’s arrangements ensure the shanties are performed traditionally without too much intervention from a more conventional musical theatre sound. However, it’s a shame that the music, although undoubtedly the star of the show, doesn’t advance plot or character as it often does in a musical. Many of the songs help to establish place, especially “Village by the Sea” beautifully performed by Parisa Shahmir, but they’re otherwise mostly disconnected from the story. Whilst they’re not without their own emotional intensity, I was struggling to remember many once I left the auditorium. Amanda Whittington’s book translates the story well for the stage, capturing the fishermen’s bawdy humour and creating more emotional depth for the characters. I’m not entirely convinced that the depictions of Cornwall and “that there London” ring true, but this dichotomy fuels many of the jokes and conflicts in the story.

Even if it is ‘a drinking group with a singing problem’, Fisherman’s Friends is a very British success story which has made its move to the stage seamlessly. I have a feeling it will have the same enduring appeal as the songs upon which it is based.

Fisherman’s Friends the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April as part of a UK tour until 20th May. It plays Truro’s Hall for Cornwall 11th-22nd April. For further info, please visit 

The cast of Fisherman's Friends the Musical. Credit: Pamela Raith

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