Theatre Review: ‘Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical’

Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 5 November 
Words by Melissa Blease

Every preview of the musical version of Chris Foggin’s 2019 film Fisherman’s Friends starts in pretty much the same way: “When a group of Cornish fishermen came together to sing the traditional working songs they’d sung for generations, nobody, least of all the fishermen, expected the story to end on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury…”

Now I’m not saying that the real-life tale behind the little Port Isaac-based folk music group who became globally-acclaimed sea shanty superstars isn’t an amazing one; it is, and it’s wonderful, and it’s certainly worthy of being told. But unexpected? In recent years, a cheeky group of middle-aged WI members’ fundraising calendar, a drag queen that saved a Northampton shoe factory and a sewing machinist at an East London car factory who called a strike that led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act have all seen their stories turned into all-singing, all-dancing mega-hits – it’s the clear commercial way forward for modern-day redemption tales. But did any of the characters who lived those stories really do what they did in the way that those West End blockbuster behemoths claim they did it? Hmmm…

Am I being cynical? Absolutely not. I’m all for championing triumph-over-adversity yarns, manufactured into light entertainment that we can all, in our own ways, identify with, artistic license, mawkishness, whimsy and all – and Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is up there with the very best of the bunch. 

The Cornish coastal scene is set even before the lights in the auditorium go down: the sound of waves crashing and seagulls squawking lets us know there might be a storm coming in… and suddenly, we’re thrust into the eye of that storm alongside our fisherman friends, their sonorous harmonies reassuring and uplifting both the audience and each other as they make their way back to safe harbour and we settle down in our seats. That opening scene is, apparently, just another day in the life of a fisherman, turned into clever, atmospheric, theatrical flesh by designer Lucy Osborne. Off the boat, most of the action takes place in the Port Isaac pub (or on the seawall behind it) that, for many generations, has served as a community hub for the fishermen and their families – and when we’re down the pub with them, we get to meet those families and the fascinating personalities behind the trawlers’ ostensibly rough, gruff exteriors. 

Above: The Company of Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical

Above: The Company of Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical

In the role of Jim – informal community figurehead and unofficial leader of a folk-singing band of merry man– James Gaddas is the perfect stalwart with a heart: a brusque lynchpin who tries his best to keep his vulnerability under waterproof wraps. Jim’s daughter Alwyn, however, knows her dad better than anybody else  does – and Parisa Shahmir’s subtly powerful, haunting vocals reveal all we need to know about both of them. Pub landlord and new father Rowan (Dan Buckley) and his wife Sally (Hazel Monaghan) have their own struggles to deal with, while Jim’s mum Maggie (a superbly feisty performance from theatre legend Susan Penhaligon) does her best to keep everybody’s spirits afloat – and she’s going to need to keep those spirits high, as there’s both deep tragedy and immense good fortune that nobody could have predicted on the near horizon. 

Enter fish-out-of-water city boy hipster Danny, a former A&R man for a major London record label who intends to visit the coast for an overnight stay as a guest at a flashy friend’s wedding but ends up diving into the Port Isaac deep end in more ways than one; if you’ve ever wondered how such a character might react and adapt to the ways of a close-knit community whose lifestyle is dictated by the vagaries of the ocean wave, Jason Langley offers a masterclass.

But the real credit for the success of this thoroughly beguiling production has to go to the ensemble cast and crew that make Fisherman’s Friends the utter joy that it is. The live music rarely stops for more than a moment, and the shanties – ancient or modern, original or adapted – keep on coming, those strong, harmonious, a cappella vibes doing that harmonious, a cappella thing of getting right under your skin and provoking an almost visceral emotional reaction… or, at the very least, an endorphin boost. 

If you cast off any notion of cynicism, Fisherman’s Friends is an uplifting, joyful, beautifully-wrought production. Take the bait and dive in.

Featured image: Jason Langley as Danny, James Gaddas as Jim and the Company inFisherman’s Friends: The Musical | Photography credit: Pamela Raith