SCRUTINY | Thrilling Sea Shanties & Clever Choreography Carry Crowd-Pleasing Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical

By Paula Citron on December 5, 2022

Dan Buckley, James Gaddas, Robert Duncan, Jason Langley, Anton Stephans (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Dan Buckley, James Gaddas, Robert Duncan, Jason Langley, Anton Stephans (Photo: Pamela Raith)

David Mirvish/Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, book by Amanda Whittington (based on the 2019 film), music from the Fisherman’s Friends repertoire, directed by James Grieve, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Nov. 27 to Jan. 15. Tickets here

First of all, full disclosure. I’ve always loved folk music, with a particular fondness for sea shanties. The rough, raw a cappella male voices, singing in rhythmic cadence, enchant me, which is why, for an old folkie like me, the songs in Fisherman’s Friends: the Musical, took me to sea shanty paradise.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, featuring the original U.K. cast, is having its North American premiere at the Royal Alex, and judging from the reaction of the opening night crowd, the show is on its way to becoming a crowd favourite.

Sea shanties are work songs that go back to the time of tall ships, when sailors sung in unison to coordinate big, heavy tasks like weighing anchor, hauling rope, or setting sail. Over time, they became the folklore music of fishing villages, and today there are many sea shanty festivals held all over the world.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is inspired by a true story that began in 1995 in Port Isaac, a picturesque fishing village on the northwest coast of Cornwall. A group of friends, all tied to the sea in some way, began singing shanties on the platt (or beach) in the harbour every Friday night, raising money for charity.

In 2009, BBC Radio presenter Johnnie Walker was holidaying in Cornwall and came across two of the group’s homemade CDs. He got his manager, Ian Brown, to come to Port Isaac, and he was impressed enough to negotiate a £1,000,000 recording contract with Island Records.

The men’s first commercial album was released in 2010, and defying all logic, reached No. 9 on the pop chart. While the group is now a household name in Britain, where they tour twice a year, Fisherman’s Friends remain rooted in their beloved Port Isaac, where they still sing on the platt during the summer to raise money for charity. They consider themselves semi-professional, but continue to put out albums.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is primarily based on the feature film made about the group in 2019, and this is where fiction takes over from fact. London music executive Danny (Jason Langley), equipped with a Cockney accent, discovers the group, and negotiates the record deal. In fact, Danny has fallen on hard times and plays fast and loose with the truth.

Parisa Sharmir, Jason Langley and Full Company (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Parisa Sharmir, Jason Langley and Full Company (Photo: Pamela Raith)

There has to be a love story, so Danny falls for cynical Alwyn (Parisa Shahmir), the daughter of lead singer Jim (James Gaddas). Jim, of course, is at first resistant to the idea of a record deal. There is also the subplot of pub owners Sally (Hazel Monaghan)) and Rowan (Dan Buckley), who are in danger of losing their business.

Rounding out the main cast are Jim’s father Jago (Robert Duncan) and mother Maggie (Susan Penhaligon). Along with Jim and Rowan, a featured singer in the group is Leadville (Anton Stephans). Leah (Fia Houston-Hamilton) is Danny’s ex-boss, and the one he has to convince about a record deal.

There is also a superb nine-member roots band led by co-musical directors James Findlay and James William-Pattison that is fully integrated into the cast as Port Isaac folk.

In truth, the story is lame and predictable, and, in reality, is just a vehicle to carry the music, but what glorious music it is. The cheers from the audience started early and carried right on to the thunderous conclusion.

I should also add, that there is a lot of humour to keep things popping, along with the de rigueur poignant moments, and yes, Fisherman’s Friend, the throat lozenge, does get a mention.

Everyone can act, but more to the point, everyone can sing, and it is really clever how the show integrates the women’s voices in key numbers. At the heart, however, are the Fisherman’s Friends singing together, and while their number keeps shifting, their harmony is still magical.

I’m assuming that there is not a set number of singers because the actors are needed for other roles at the time. Nonetheless, whether it is seven, eight or nine of them, it doesn’t matter because the Fisherman’s Friends remain in hearty and healthy voice.

Full Company (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Full Company (Photo: Pamela Raith)

I also want to credit choreographer Matt Cole who, faithful to the locale, has come up with dances that remain true to the folk idiom of the music. I love, love, love the numbers that are a fusion of clog dances and folk dances. Those heavy stamps of the feet stir the soul.

Lucy Osborne’s clever nautical-themed set sort of recreates the Port Isaac platt, with high walls and an upper tier representing the cliff tops. The ground level stands for various locales from pub to beach depending on the set pieces brought in by the cast, and we do get an actual boat from time to time. Osborne’s costumes are also spot on.

Kudos to director James Grieve, who uses the upper and lower tiers to great effect to produce a lively and energetic stage picture. This enthusiastic cast is in motion from beginning to end.

But, I have to end with the music, 29 thrilling sea shanties, both well-known and not, and three reprises. When Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical ended, I wanted to see it all over again.

(Out of interest, the group’s 2022 second film, Fisherman’s Friends: One and All, has just come out on Crave.)

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Paula Citron
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