A trawler full of talented people sing sea shanties, share folk music and stomp, step and shuffle through boisterous dances in Fisherman’s Friends The Musical.
This uplifting show is based on the true story of the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish fishermen who rose to fame singing the traditional work songs passed down for centuries by generations before them, and the popular 2019 film inspired by their experiences. It is an entertaining musical voyage that will float your boat whether you have seen the film or not.
Washed-up music executive Danny is in Cornwall for a wedding. A fast-living Londoner intent on drowning his sorrows over his sunk career, he is a fish out of water in the seemingly sleepy village of Port Isaac. However, a chance encounter with an indifferent group of shanty singing seafarers helps him rediscover his mojo. Invigorated by a wave of affection for this authentic a cappella crew, the skipper’s daughter and their close-knit community, Danny becomes determined to convince the fishermen that they can achieve chart success. Of course, during his maritime metamorphosis from overbearing outsider to firm fisherman’s friend, he is forced to re-evaluate his own life too.
The show, which relishes providing a time and a plaice for fish puns, dad jokes, lively banter and regional rivalry, has dropped anchor at Milton Keynes Theatre this week as part of its first UK tour. Judging by audience members’ reactions on opening night, landlubbers in the city are of-fish-ially hooked!
Welcomed by the cacophonous squawking of seagulls, you can almost taste the sea salt in the air. The action starts with the enigmatic sound of the Shipping Forecast before a vessel is tossed into view, rocking perilously on a stormy sea. Later, scene-setting staging delivers cosier coastal vibes at the harbour (the “Platt”, where fishermen store their equipment and set down their catches of fish, crabs and lobsters) and in the pub. The Golden Lion pub, which is the hub of the village, is where the locals stroll past mismatched furniture to lean against the lovely old bar, order an ale, then sing and dance along to stirring songs.
The high tide of Fisherman’s Friends The Musical is the singing. We hear the fishermen before we see them: they sombrely sing in unison while hoisting the sails and steering their ship to safety. People are primed to respond to music and sea shanties serve as a quintessential example of this. As work songs, they were created by sailors on merchant ships and sung as an accompaniment to arduous tasks. The steady beat and simple lyrics unite mariners in collective rhythmic activities, not only coordinating their physical labour and improving their efficiency, but also providing a musical tonic to repetitive toil. The onstage fisher-folk find comfort and camaraderie in their shared singing experiences. Similarly, the audience is made to feel part of something bigger during each marvellous musical moment.
Assorted sea shanties and songs are atmospheric, expressive, enjoyable and get your toes tapping. Nautical treasures include the beautiful ‘Village By The Sea’, spirited ‘(What Shall We Do With The) Drunken Sailor’, haunting ‘Keep Hauling’ and mesmerising ‘The Tidal Pool’. All the music is played live by roving musicians. Their omnipresence adds to the sense of community. Their efforts form the soundtrack of the villagers’ lives and reinforce the social function that music serves. Their instruments include melodeons (small accordions), guitars, banjos, drums, a cello, a violin, a harmonica, a whistle and percussive spoons.
In the old Cornish language (Kernewek) “would you like to dance?” is “a vynn’ta donsya genev?”. Matt Cole’s rumbustious choreography inspires a resounding “ya” (“yes”) with its cadenced steps, weaving patterns, neat formations and tabletop stomping. Pleasing pedestrian movement morphs into something special when characters start dancing arm in arm, gallop, skip, fly the Cornish flag, waltz turn and even can-can kick. Gently bouncing, swiftly shuffling, do-si-do-ing and partner swinging before raising tankards triumphantly – they all convincingly enjoy spontaneous social dancing to traditional tunes.
The plot and character development are perhaps not quite as watertight as your best waders ought to be. And the storytelling does sometimes feel cast off in order to focus on the singing. However, overall, Fisherman’s Friends The Musical is feel-good fun and fin-tastic entertainment.
Fisherman’s Friends is a ten-strong group – added to which there are family members, pub landlords and interloping tourists – so this is a real ensemble show. The brilliance of the entire company is off the scale. Parisa Shahmir shines as straight-talking, guitar-strumming songbird Alwyn (described in the dialogue as “the Taylor Swift of the South West”). James Gaddas is just gruff enough as Jim, leader of the Fisherman’s Friends and Alwyn’s dad. Robert Duncan and Susan Penhaligon are warm and witty as Jim’s parents, Jago and Maggie. Dan Buckley and Hazel Monaghan portray Rowan and Sally, new parents and new proprietors of the debt-ridden pub, with heart and humour. Jason Langley brings swagger as Danny and has sweet chemistry with Parisa Shahmir.
Imaginative scenes, funny lines and songs delivered in quick succession ensure that the show moves at a good pace. The lasting impression is that we have been treated to an authentic night out in a packed Cornish pub and made friends with all the locals.
If you have been angling for tickets, make sure to hook them reel-y quickly to catch a performance!
*Production photography by Pamela Raith.
Fisherman’s Friends The Musical continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 8 October 2022. The UK tour continues until 13 May 2023.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.