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Fisherman’s Friends

by on 2 March 2023

Rollicking in the Rowlocks

Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical

by Amanda Whittington, music arranged by Fisherman’s Friends

Royo at Richmond Theatre, then on tour until 20th May

Review by Mark Aspen

If your lunchtime stroll took you along the chilly riverside at Richmond at the very end of February you may have had the heart-warming experience of chancing across a lively crew of Cornish fishermen vigorously singing sea shanties.  You can’t keep an old salt away from water and boats (and seagulls) it seems.

True Cornish types have a love of home, but also a love of the wild outdoors, on a moor or out at sea.  It is a strange soulful mix of agoraphobia and claustrophobia, perhaps exemplified by tin mines and fishing ports, both now alas in decline.

However, the new fresh from the sea musical Fisherman’s Friends, in contrast, is largely and exuberantly upbeat, and heart-throbbingly, loudly, melodically, wildly, foot-tappingly so.  On-stage folk musicians play a plethora of eclectic instruments, cellos to banjos, mandolins to melodeons, bouzouki to basses … and beer crates and boot heels.  Hard work for music supervisor and arranger, David White, and with over three dozen musical numbers, this is without doubt a music-driven show.  Yet, stripped of the glitz of a typical musical, it is not self-consciously so.  The music seems to arise almost spontaneously, and with a native ease.

In fact, the plot is simple and largely just an excuse to sing the songs.   A hearty group of sea fishermen, whose bond extends to singing together, is coerced into making a commercial recording, which, they eventually succeed in doing … in spite of themselves.  A pair of sub-plots are even simpler, boy gets girl, and landlord gets pub.

Under the direction of James Grieve, the company surfs the story and the music, from which breaks out a warm-hearted blend of humour and pathos. 

Designer Lucy Osborne’s set is as robust as the concept, a compact semi-circle, which acts as the sea wall, as cottages and guest-house, and much more, including by means of a simple pair of double doors, The Golden Lion, the local pub and focus of all that happens in this corner of Port Isaac.  The design’s triumph is the fishing boat, out at sea, as exhilarating and impressive a start as you could wish for.  It is buffeted by the storm by means of ropes and rockers, half hidden in haze and enhanced by Joanna Town’s inventive lighting and the busy atmospheric soundscape of Dan Samson, who doesn’t stint the decibels when it comes to an Atlantic storm. 

Central to this tightly-knit community are three generations of the Penworthy family.   Jago and his wife Maggie are much respected and much loved members of the village.  Their adult son, Jim is the skipper of the fishing boat and the leader of the buoy band of middle-aged fishermen.  Jim has had a chip on his shoulder, ever since his wife left him for a different life in London, left him with their young daughter Alwyn, now a mature woman. 

When Danny, a Londoner, chances-by the village, and Alwyn takes his eye, the village is cautious, but Jim’s hackles rise.  Danny has been to a country-house society wedding nearby, but has left it too late to get a hotel room.  His overnight stay at Alwyn’s guest house is extended when he loses his Range Rover to the rising tide.  Danny is a bit of a geezer, a bit of a wide-boy, but not quite.  His heart is probably in the right place, but he has yet to find it.  He becomes quite attracted to this different way-of-life, and besides there is no need to rush back … as he has just lost his job in a record promotion company. 

Jason Langley makes a suitably light-footed and quick-talking Danny, giving him an edge that trims back his self-awareness enough to believe in his own confident optimism.   There is a sense of wide-eyed wonder at this new environment where, in a Cornish fishing village, he is, well … er, a fish out of water.  The community’s wariness of Danny extends to undisguised hostility at first.  Danny remains unfazed, seeing here an opportunity, against the odds, to commercialise the fishermen’s sea shanties and pub songs, and a way back into his lost career in the recording industry.

James Gaddas’ authoritarian Jim is a hard-bitten and gruff stoic, but Gaddas gradually and subtly allows the man’s humanity to show through, and with emotional empathy.   His rich singing voice has a slight gravelly timbre that adds to the characterisation.

Robert Duncan, who plays Jim’s seventy-something father Jago, was born in Cornwall, so can claim to be the amongst the most authentic of a pretty authentic cast.  Duncan’s Jago is the gentle patriarch of the group, a man of his milieu, played with sympathy and poignancy.  Jago is a man who wants to leave on a high; and when he feels his time come, he puts to sea in his little boat into a gathering night storm.   Susan Penhaligon, another Cornish native, portrays Maggie, Jago’s wife, as a vivacious and fun-loving grannie.  She certainly is her own woman, stubborn and self-assured.  Loving, lively and loquacious, she is the voice of common sense, who helps knit together this close-knit community, the organiser.  It is Maggie who sets in motion the celebrations the St Piran’s Day.  (The feast day of a patron saint of Cornwall falls on the day after the Richmond run of the musical).  Trelawney, the “national anthem” of Cornwall, is an infectious ear-worm.

Their granddaughter, Alwyn has inherited her grandmother’s tough self-reliance.   Parisa Shahmir seems to naturally inhabit the role of the headstrong feisty Alwyn, her true-to-life spirited acting enhanced by an outstanding musical performance.  Sometimes accompanying herself on the guitar, she sings with a bell-like quality, clear and haunting.  Her solos are wistful yet vital, epitomising the qualities of her character’s surroundings.

Alwyn questions and probes the motives of Danny, who quite honestly admits he is “the 10% man”.  Whilst most of the village are guarded about exploiting commercial opportunities, seeing the band solely as a bonding mechanism for the community, some are more pragmatic, notably Rowan, the young licensee of The Golden Lion.   Rowan has inherited the family business, but times have changed and the pub no longer pays its way.   He and his wife Morwenna fret secretly about the debts; and they have a new baby.  Dan Buckley and Louisa Beadel paint a heart-warming picture of young family life, full of emotional and financial reality.  They are, perforce, open to the possibilities afforded by the new opportunity. 

However, when they all go off to London with Danny, we know it’s going to go to a bag of eels.  Crossing the Tamar is a cultural expedition, into the land of “the English” via a few side-digs at Devon.  London is definitely another world.  But this is mutually so.  When the group visit a gay bar, it is out of innocence curiosity.  However, both the band and the barflies regard each other as amusing eccentrics. 

Here though is a refreshing breath across the cloying self-denigration that destructively pervades most of today’s world.  The fishermen are proud of their culture and of their “national” identity, robustly and outspokenly so.  Fisherman’s Friends healthily rejoices in the values of the different cultures, their humanity and coherence that is so often scorned in present-day society.  

The togetherness and belonging of this particular fishing village is expressed in their sinewy songs, sung a cappella, or in spontaneous counterpoint with (seemingly) extemporaneous music.   The musical has a large ensemble, for it is very much an ensemble piece, although many individuals have a chance to shine.  The second mate, on board and on shore, Leadville has some great one-liners, for instance.  Pete Gallagher punches home the wit and warmth as the steadfast Leadville.   

Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical is a show that wears its heart on its sleeve.  “I sing to the sea and the sunset”, it says.  It tells of love and loss, grief and graft in a supportive society that is honest about its identity and true to its humanity.  It is brought together in its own musical bonds.  The words “haul way together” recur in different forms, and you will haul with them, for here is a show that you cannot help but to tap your feet to, as you metaphorically haul away with them.   

Mark Aspen, February 2023

Photography by Pamela Raith

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