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Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical at Richmond Theatre

Never mind their vigorous and action-packed songs of the sea, the now famous band of Cornish singers has become something of an epic yarn in its own right. In the unlikely event that you’ve not come across them, they’ve been performing their full-throated ballads for more than a quarter of a century in their home town of Port Isaac, and making a seriously international name for themselves in the process.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical
Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical

For all the members’ maturity, much of their repertoire predates them, recounting the vocational joys, companionship and perils of the fishing community from previous generations. This is folk music with a deep and seriously autobiographical tradition.

Hence this show is the latest chapter in the unusual saga of an amateur though passionate bunch of guys being discovered by a curious young man from a major London record company, signing a deal in 2010 and attaining the rank of festival headliners. In some respects, the narrative resembles a latterday version of Cecil Sharp’s collecting of rural folksongs a century ago. Or indeed the American musician Ry Cooder’s rediscovery of the veteran Cuban band the Buena Vista Social Club twenty-five years ago.

All this without apparently losing sight of their origins. On the face of it, a clear case of sound moorings. Like the Friends themselves, this cast of professional performers and musicians exudes a sense of community. And like the fellows they portray, they sing with a defiant swagger, their brawny right arms aloft with a foaming pint, each man a standing, singing statue of liberty. Enough to face down any tempest with the temerity to blow in.

In the centre of the band’s collective life story is the kind of episode you might expect to find in a showbizzy biopic. Except that this one really occurred in 2009 and involved the BBC Radio presenter Johnnie Walker. He happened to be in Cornwall on holiday at the time, and chanced upon a couple of the Friends’ homemade CDs. This of course provides rich and unwasted opportunities for the show to present a culture-clashing encounter between the true-voiced fishing folk and the skinny young chancer from The Smoke.

And yet: alerted by Walker, his manager Ian Brown did indeed get himself down to Port Isaac, and was sufficiently impressed to negotiate a seven-figure recording contract with Universal Music Group, which brought out their first commercial album the following year.

In another time Fisherman’s Friends The Musical might just have come across as square, dated, uncool, and sunk in the Bay of Indifference. This has emphatically not been its fate, and one of the reasons is the continuing revival of the English folk tradition and the recognition, or reinstatement, of material from such as the Carthy and Waterson families.

This latest incarnation of FF, directed with tidal energy by James Grieve, is awash with production credits: based on the screenplay by Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth; book by Amanda Whittington. Since the singing is the show’s main rationale, it is also the star. This is of course in keeping with folk music’s welcome scepticism of celebrity, and the brawny ensemble in the bows of this vessel are there not just to drown out the noise of the sea and its terrors, but to mind each others’ welfare.

It’s plain fayre alright, with straightforward harmonies and full-steam-ahead commitment. Musical director James William-Pattison knows the stuff’s plain merits well enough not to try anything too fancy. Martin Carroll is outstanding as the peppery Wiggy, as is Susan Penhaligon as the mumsy Maggie. James Grieve pulls together some disparate strands, indeed ropes, together with consummate skill, steering well clear of the shallows of glibness and the rocks of earnestness.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Based on the true story of the chart-topping Cornish singing sensations and their hit 2019 movie, Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is a feel-good voyage about friendship, community and music which smashed box office records in Cornwall.

When a group of Cornish fishermen came together to sing the traditional working songs they’d sung for generations, nobody, least of all the fishermen, expected the story to end on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. They are spotted by a fish-out-of-water music manager on a trip from London, who must learn that there is more to life than selling your sole for fifteen minutes of fame.

A star cast includes James Gaddas (Coronation Street, Billy Elliot the Musical), Parisa Shahmir (Mamma Mia!), Robert Duncan (Drop the Dead Donkey) and Susan Penhaligon (Bouquet of Barbed Wire).

So, climb aboard, find your sea legs and allow yourself to fall for this critically acclaimed musical – hook, line and sinker!

Book by Amanda Whittington
Based on the Screenplay by Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, Piers Ashworth
Directed by James Grieve

Richmond Theatre
Until Sat 4 Mar 2023

Theatre Royal Brighton
Tue 7 Mar – Sat 11 Mar 2023

New Theatre Oxford
Tue 14 Mar – Sat 18 Mar 2023

Princess Theatre, Torquay
Tue 4 Apr – Sat 8 Apr 2023

Bristol Hippodrome
Wed 3 May – Sat 6 May 2023

King’s Theatre, Glasgow
Tue 9 May – Sat 13 May 2023

New Wimbledon Theatre
Tue 16 May – Sat 20 May 2023

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  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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