Writer: Amanda Whittington
Director: James Grieve
It’s hard to define the emotions that wash over you as the lights go down at the start of Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical. The stage is largely dark and we can just make out the outline of a small boat being buffeted by the sea in Lucy Osborne’s clever set, emphasising the fragility of these men’s lives. And then the singing – strong, harmonious a cappella – begins and one can’t help but feel a stirring as we see the men work together in perfect synchronicity and harmony, joined by the onstage band who play various, mainly traditional, instruments and who frequently join the cast in dancing and singing. And as it goes on, everything about this show is right – the feeling of community and comradeship as well as the soaringly perfect vocals whose beat somehow gets under your skin.
For twenty years the people of Port Isaac have come together in the pub to sing and drink. A chance encounter with Danny – a former A & R man with Island Records who’s in Cornwall for a glamorous wedding – ultimately leads to the men recording a demo in the hope of getting an album deal. At first, Danny is the ultimate outsider, but when he falls in love with the men’s sound, his enthusiasm gradually wins them over. And the prospect of a valuable deal isn’t lost on them, most notably on Rowan, the pub landlord struggling to keep the centre of the community a going concern with his wife Ann, as well as care for their new baby. Even if you haven’t seen the film version or come across the real-life Fisherman’s Friends, the story will have few surprises. Nevertheless, it’s so well done that one doesn’t care that it’s predictable. One finds oneself rooting for Danny as his putative relationship with Alwyn, daughter of the group’s leader, Jim (‘Just keep away from my daughter’) develops, as well as for Rowan and Ann in their struggle.
Central to the whole is Jim, the singers’ unofficial leader, played with authority by James Gaddas. Gaddas brings the right amount of gruffness underpinned by vulnerability as his character looks to do his best by the band and the people of Port Isaac. He’s supported by veterans Robert Duncan and Susan Penhaligon as his parents, each played with a twinkle. The singing isn’t confined to the men, with Parisa Shahmir bringing a sweet innocence to her role as Alwyn. Her voice is sweet and haunting, for example, in Village by the Sea. More of her floating vocals would be welcome. Dan Buckley and Hazel Askew bring us the nervousness and apprehension of mine hosts Rowan and Ann well.
Wideboy Danny is brought to loud and brash life by Jason Langley. His journey, from arrogant incomer to friend via his epiphany on hearing the men sing is effective. He is the foil for much of the comedic light relief, too, betraying good comic timing and a decent singing voice himself.
Osborne’s multi-layered set is largely open allowing for the muscular choreography from Matt Cole and easily transitions from the pub in Port Isaac to the sea wall to a gay bar in London. Amanda Whittington’s book serves the story well, but it is the songs – some slightly reimagined for the show – that shine. James Grieve’s direction provides pace alongside occasional time for reflection as the characters dance their way into each other’s – and our – affection. He ensures that it never strays into saccharine territory: one feels that these are real Cornish people, cleaving together perfectly. Indeed, the rendition of the unofficial Cornish anthem, Trelawney, is surprisingly stirring.
Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical is an unashamedly feel-good night out and none the worse for that. One can’t help but leave the theatre uplifted and humming the catchy songs.
Runs Until 17 September 2022 and on tour