Book by Amanda Whittington
Music as Performed by Fisherman’s Friends
Directed by James Grieve
A shoal of eager shanty-singers makes their way to the Glasgow King’s Theatre this week for a sea-faring adventure of community, song, and heart-warming storytelling that is sure to light a fire in your belly and leave a cheerful melody or two on your lips.
Adapting the hit film Fisherman’s Friends into a musical, Amanda Whittington’s comprehension of the localised coastal life, one of isolation and trying demands, is greatly focused on community, family and legacy. It certainly helps with a feature film based on the true-life story serving as a backdrop for the plot, which follows the events of the titular men, a group of Cornish fishers from Port Isaac who find themselves piquing the interest of the music industry after London music exec Danny hears their traditional sea shanties.
Music is (quite rightly) front and centre from the off. Even the impressive opening of the fishing boats bouncing up and down on the waves is matched perfectly by our opening number, Nelson’s Blood. It is one hell of a start – setting both tone and atmosphere while reminding audiences of the underappreciated nature of the fishing industry, both in job security and danger. Director James Grieve knows to push the music but ensures the character and stories behind the men, and indeed the woman of this community, make up the production more so than its striking visuals.
From Port Isaac to the open seas and back to the dryland of London – Fisherman’s Friends invites audiences on a journey with the good men of Cornwall for a couple of hours. Pete Gallagher, Robert Duncan, Dan Buckley, Dominic Brewer, and James Gaddas and cast all bring in a range of vocals right down to a melodic baritone that captures the significance and gravity within these sea shanties. Gaddas has a de-facto leadership to the band and fisherman – a pillar of the community trying to balance his workload with the grief of losing his wife and ensuring the safety of his daughter Alywn. It is a suitably nuanced and un-showy performance, with stern emotions without turning into a trope. The razor-wit onstage is a massive success for Gaddas dry delivery, or Gallagher’s more over-the-top joking attitude.
Vocally, everyone on stage is pulling their weight – offering a truly organic and percussive rhythm with plenty of foot stamps and thigh slaps. It’s a clean and simple on-stage band and swings throughout who play most of the Port Isaac residents – Hazel Askew (Ass Musical Director) Lousia Beadel, Mel Briggs, Alfie Gildey, Hannah Cumming and Beccy Hurst, all providing live instrumentals to some original numbers, as a host of classic ditties: Drunken Sailor, a glorious rendition of the often-unheard Leave Her, Johnny, and yes, even a small nod to that viral sensation Wellerman.
A siren upon the stage, Parisa Shahmir’s exceptionally natural and gifted vocals as Jim’s daughter Alwyn make a staggering impact – carrying not only a crystalline clarity and weight but imparting a tremendous sense of loss, heartbreak, and hope in her harmony with fellow co-stars. It’s a fair balance to Jason Langley’s more cock-assured Danny, though the downplayed ‘city boy’ antics do forge a genuine sense of chemistry for the pair – especially by the time we come to the act one closer, leading into a more dynamic and engaging second act sense of drama.
An effort is instilled within the production’s colour and visage to ensure an authenticity that made the Fisherman’s Friends band a success – dare we say, it’s almost rustic, and for any who grew up on the shoreline is fittingly accurate (if a little lacking in patches of seaweed and slicks). Johanna Town’s moody lighting does well against Lucy Osbourne’s rig-inspired set, with large white walls to reflect the lighting design. It’s tight throughout, but Town’s design is better utilised in muted tones, serving as a reinforcer for emotion or elemental extremes. There is an invisible freshness to the show – a faint coastal breeze billowing through the King’s auditorium, carrying that slightly salted air.
The only mentionable drawbacks emerge from the musicality of the show, where the expectations begin to push for a lengthier runtime and start pushing the plot back to the pub all too often to hear another shanty. It isn’t strictly an issue, the music is after all a significant draw of the narrative, but when romances and tensions emerge, there is a desire to get back on track with the plot. But, making these trips to the local watering hole salvageable, along with Matt Cole’s folksy choreography which usually accompanies them, are very poignant performances from Hazel Monaghan and Susan Penhaligon – who both channel the much-needed dimension of the women left onshore, worrying to their husbands, brothers, friends fates and the economic straits the community face.
It’s got lashings of heart, a bit of a silver tongue, and some sturdy sea legs to sing all the way into the night. Demonstrating the versatility of musical theatre – uplifting a known story but still infusing it with a sense of theatricality and persona, Whittington’s musical adaptation is a welcome addition to the now-growing Fisherman’s franchise. A feel-good experience with plenty of humour and some salty sea-dog jigs, make sure you catch Fisherman’s Friends before it hauls anchor and sets sail for another adventure.
Sturdy Sea Legs
Fisherman’s Friends The Musical runs at The King’s Theatre, Glasgow until May 13th. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm. Matinees at 14.30pm on Thursday and Saturday. Suitable for ages 12+
Runs for two hours and thirty minutes with one interval.
Tickets begin from £13.00 and may be obtained here.