The Fisherman's Friends: Martin Carroll (left), Dakota Starr, Pete Galagher, Robert Duncan, James Gaddas, Anton Stephans, Dan Buckley, Hadrian Delacey, Dominic Brewer

Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre


Traditional folk music seems to stir something deep within us, an echo of a common origin, a universal past, a rhythm of life and seasons we all once lived by and Fisherman’s Friends taps into that.

There is a story there, a group of local fishermen who sing on the beach at the North Cornwall fishing village of Port Isaac every Friday for charity, drink copious amounts of Tribute, brewed 17 miles away from Cornish hops, on the south coast at St Austell, live a simple life, fishing, drinking and singing.

That is until they are discovered by a recently sacked, remarkably cocky and annoying record company executive who sports a cavalier attitude to the truth and a Del Boy attitude of trust me, next year we can all be millionaires.

But despite the attitude, with a mix of love and lots of luck, with admirable perseverance in both, he eventually comes good to make the unlikely bunch of crabbers and lobster pot haulers into a star (old) boy band, even appearing at Glastonbury on the Pyramid stage, and, as a bonus, he even saves the village pub to boot.

But it is the music that carries the tale along, with the regulars at the financially precarious pub, the Golden Lion, bursting into song at the drop of . . . well anything really, whether dropped or not.

If there is a fault then perhaps a bit less singing and a few more words to add a bit more flesh on the bones of the characters might have give the tale a bit more weight. Robert Duncan, for instance is a fine actor, remember him as the lifeboat skipper in the online Into The Night? yet he has little to get his teeth into as the elder statesman of the band as Jago – doing a fine job with what he is given mind.

Even James Gaddas as his son Jim, the de facto leader of the singers, is merely a gruff character, and that is about it. We are told why he carries an anger with him, but he never has much chance to escape from the confines of that initial role, to show us who Jim is behind the aggression and protective arm around daughter Alwyn and the village life he knows. Again, a fine job he makes of it, but it could have been more.

 Susan Penhaligon as Maggie & Robert Duncan as Jago

Nit picking, perhaps, but it was a lost opportunity to give the story more depth to go with the excellent music and its fine harmonisations. That being said Amanda Whittington’s script still has a lot going for it with plenty of jokes and one liners along with social comment about second homes and Spanish fishing boats in Cornish waters, and then there is the whole tourist dilemma, businesses staying afloat in summer and sinking in winter when holiday homes and second homes, having driven property prices way out of reach of locals, lie empty.

We have Rowan, played by Dan Buckley, and wife Sally, with new daughter, running the pub they inherited, the heart and soul of the village rapidly sinking under inheritance tax demands and a diminishing income from the dwindling winter population.

There are the 4am starts, the tides, the inherent danger of the daily challenge of the sea, and then there is Danny, strutting his stuff in the hands of Jason Langley, the London wide boy with his posh Range Rover costing more than a crabber will earn in three or four years, who enters their life as a breath of particularly unwanted air. He’s down from the smoke for the wedding of the much unloved, local property developer passing as gentry.

In the competition to immediately dislike Danny, Jim and daughter Alwyn are near the front of the queue – which sort of guarantees Danny and Alwyn are going to figure as an item in there somewhere . . .

Parisa Shahmir as Alwyn with the company

Then there is Jago’s wife Maggie, played by Susan Penhaligon, who has a more pragmatic view on life, after all, as she says of life: “What you’ll regret is the trouble you didn’t get into!” All helping to sow the seeds of a budding romance.

And there is fun, just for the sake of it, as when the fishermen head to London, Padstow being the edge of their world so far, but an audition calls so they end up in the capital in a gay bar, when . . . well you just have to see it, after all they are people and they are from a village.

Good as the shanties and traditional songs are, and they are good, the real highlights came not from the stars, the fishermen, but from their wives and daughters. Parisa Shahmir as Jim’s daughter Alwyn has a quite beautiful voice, clear as a bell, with a fabulous rendition of Village by the Sea even Joan Baez would be proud of. This is a new song from musical director James Findlay, who also appears as Henry in the on stage band.

She also sings a wonderful sorrowful ballad of lost love and the haunting The Tidal Pool she wrote herself. Hazel Monaghan, as Sally, her life falling apart, appears with a mournful Celtic ballad, full of sorrow and emotion that could have come straight from a Clannad concert. You could really feel her pain in a wonderful performance. Again her voice was crystal clear and you could hear every word.

The music is the lifeblood the production and tells of a life perhaps lost in our modern media savvy world, The tradition of sea shanties is strong in the fishing villages of not only Cornwall but other areas on the margins with the Fisherman’s Friends perhaps the best known exponents thanks to TV and film exposure.

 But many a village has its singers, I was in Cadgwith by the Lizard this summer, population around 1,000, with its village singers appearing once a week just up from the gig club, another Cornish tradition.

The musical has added elements to the story, for dramatic effect, but the original had its own kismet moment. BBC Radio’s disc jockey Johnny Walker was on holiday in Cornwall in 2009 and came across a couple of the Friend’s home produced CD’s sold for charity, raising funds, as with their weekly concerts on the beach, for the RNLI.

Walker listened and his manager Ian Brown was dispatched to see them and negotiated a £1 million record deal on their behalf. They had three self produced albums before the deal and so far five after, and have appeared at festivals, including Glastonbury several times.

Not all the group were fishermen but had links with the sea, some were coast guard, some RNLI, but enough made a living from the sea to ensure tours were short and in the winter months away from the main fishing season.

The musical is based on the 2019 film and is directed by James Grieve, with a clever set from Lucy Osborne, with a gallery to add interest and a roll on and off pub bar from one side, and fishing boat from the other with Matt Cole managing choreography which gave life to the production, even in wellies.

Dan Samson’s sound design is well balanced, although voices were a little indistinct at times, while and the eight piece band with their whole range of folk instruments brought an authenticity to many numbers in what is an entertaining evening of fun and music. To 17-09-22

Roger Clarke


*The performance opened with an impeccably observed one minute’s silence to honour the memory of Queen Elizabeth II ended with a round of applause.  

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