Stage Door Review 2022

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical

Sunday, December 4, 2022


book by Amanda Whittington, directed by James Grieve

Mirvish Productions, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

December 1, 2022-January 15, 2023

“The rock ’n’ roll of 1752”

Fisherman’s Friends is the name of a Cornish folk music group who sing sea shanties a cappella. In 2010 they were discovered by a record producer who landed them a £1 million contract and had them record the album “Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends”. In 2010 the album peaked at number 9 on the UK Albums Chart making Fisherman’s Friends the first traditional folk group ever to break into the top ten. The story of the group’s success drew the attention of film producers who released the movie Fisherman’s Friends loosely based on the group’s rise to success in 2019. The film, never released in North America, became so popular that it was turned into a musical that premiered in Truro in Cornwall in 2021. That musical, Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, is now having its North American premiere courtesy of David Mirvish before the show returns across the Atlantic to begin an tour of the UK.

I have never seen the group, which is still touring, nor the film, nor the film’s sequel Fisherman’s Friends: One and All (2022), so I can comment only on the musical version of the story. The book Amanda Whittington has written for the musical highlights singing as a Cornish tradition and the nine men who become the group Fisherman’s Friends simply exemplify part of their local heritage. The great virtue of the musical is its sequence of beautifully sung sea shanties sung solo, by the nine-man group or by the entire cast with live instrumental backing.

The main flaw of the show is that Whittington seems determined to leave no cliché unturned in telling her story. In the real history of Fisherman’s Friends, the group has been performing locally since 1995 when a record producer on vacation in Cornwall heard them and their self-made CDs and signed them. Obviously, there’s no drama in that so the writers of the film replaced the vacationing record producer with the fictional character of the Londoner Danny, an ex-record producer down on his luck. This gives the narrative fish-out-of-water humour, a love story and a minimal amount of tension since Danny is unreliable and is willing to lie rather than face the truth.

In basing her book on the film, Whittington leaves in the fictional Danny plot. This results in the musical feeling artificial from the very beginning and growing only more contrived as it progresses. Whittington’s portrayal of Port Isaac is idyllic to the point of fantasy. It would be great to believe that after work hardy fishermen gather at the local pub and sing their ancient sea shanties in perfect harmony thus daily reaffirming their separate identity, heritage and culture in defiance of repression by England that began in 1549. All the pub denizens get along in such jovial friendship that it seems too good to be true. This is because, even though there is a villainous landowner in the film, Charles Montegue, Whittington prevents him from ever appearing on stage.

Into this small cozy world steps Danny the Londoner, who is immediately made a fool of. What happens when two young people, both of about the same age – he from London, she from Cornwall – meet and take an instant dislike to each other? Perfectly following the formula for romantic comedy, the two eventually fall in love. Once in love the two eventually break up. And once broken up they eventually reconcile and get back together. Thus is the story of Danny and Alwyn, daughter of Jim. the de facto headsman of the village.

Meanwhile, Rowan, the owner of the pub and a member of the singing group, has kept secret that the pub is in debt. Sale of this centuries-old gathering place may become necessary now that Rowan’s wife Sally has had a baby. Will a recording contract from Danny have any possible influence on whether Rowan’s dilemma is solved? Well, of course it does. Even without knowing that the musical is based on a true story, the outcomes of the main plot and subplot can be seen as soon as they’re introduced, and Whittington seems to desire the plots to be as formulaic as possible.

Many of Whittington’s contrivances do nothing to further the plot. One is that when the Fisherman’s Friends arrive on Old Compton Road in Soho and want a drink they, of course, go to a gay bar not knowing what it is. What a larf – macho men meet poofters – something the Brits must still think is funny. The worst example occurs in Act 2 when Whittington seems to realize that nothing poignant has happened. She therefore decides to kill off one of the Fisherman’s Friends. This leads to a dirge and a wake and a change in the generally over-jolly mood of the piece, but it is so clearly manipulative it fails to engage us.

The obvious artifice of the plot is a pity since the singing itself in the show is so splendid. The a cappella singing of the nine stage Fisherman’s Friends in imitation of the real group is simply ravishing in its robustness and in the colours of its harmonies. Yet, the concept of the show demands that all 29 songs be sea shanties and sea shanties, though they may tell different stories, all have rather the same the same rhythm and structure. The verse is usually dactylic tetrameter ( ′ ˘ ˘ ×𝟦), trochaic tetrameter ( ′ ˘ ×𝟦) or some combination of the two as in “Whát shăll wĕ | dó wǐth ă | drúnkĕn | săilŏr?”

Director James Grieve has realized this and had David White orchestrate the shanties to lend them as much variety as possible. Those sung by the Fisherman’s Friends stand out and are the only proof one needs for why the group deserves to have a recording contract. But it is a pleasure to hear women’s voices when White arranges some songs for the entire cast, male and female. White varies the songs too by having some sung with instrumental accompaniment by one or more members of the onstage eight-member band. And it is especially a joy to the ear when White forgoes choral singing entirely and has various numbers sung solo, especially the most mournful ones sung by Parisa Shahmir as Alwyn.

As one might expect from a show so given to formula, the characters all tend to be two-dimensional and almost purposely encapsulatable by a single word. The community leader Jim (James Gaddas) is gruff. Danny (Jason Langley) the London record producer is shifty. Alwyn (Shahmir), is independent-minded. Jago (Robert Duncan), the oldest singer, is true-blue. Maggie (Susan Penhaligon), his wife, is a live wire. Rowan (Dan Buckley), Jago and Maggie’s son who owns the debt-ridden bar, is a worrier. Leadville (Anton Stephans), the only Black member of the singers, is a loyal friend.

Whittington seems to want simplified characters so that we will always know what to except from each one. Luckily, some of the performers are able to give their characters greater depth despite the script. Gaddas, for instance, can make Jim’s gruffness seem rock-solid or fragile depending on the circumstances. Susan Penhaligon, who gives the richest performance of the evening, comes to represent the soul of the community in her calls for order and tradition that sit alongside her love of laughter, song and hijinks.

Jason Langley, as the invented central character Danny, does move from general untrustworthiness to loyalty to the Cornishmen, but he is so convincing in his initial appearance of duplicity that we don’t really trust him even after the text suggests that we should. Langley’s fine singing voice makes an appearance about half an hour into the show. A song all his own could help Langley round out Danny’s character. Meanwhile, the soulfulness Shahmir lends her songs makes Alwyn seem like like a person of far greater emotional depths than Danny. This makes the manufactured romance between Danny and Alwyn hard to believe since Shahmir is so persuasive as a strong, independent young woman we really can’t understand what she sees in a wimpish urbanite like Danny.

Above all else Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is a night of glorious singing, the beauty of the music often so great it is spine-tingling. People who need a plot to draw them into a musical may well find that that does not happen here. Indeed, the plot is of so little interest that I could easily have listened to a concert of the music on its own and been heartily satisfied. No wonder, then, that the concerts and the many CDs of the real Fisherman’s Friends are so popular.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Dan Buckley, as Rowan, James Gaddas as Jim, Robert Duncan as Jago, Jason Langley as Danny and Anton Stephans as Leadville; Pete Gallagher as Wiggy, Dakota Starr as Ben,  James Gaddas as Jim, Robert Duncan as Jago, Hadrian Delacey as Archie, Dominic Brewer as Yestin, Anton Stephans as Leadville and Jason Langley as Danny; the ensemble of Fisherman’s Friends: the Musical; Parisa Shahmir as Alwyn and Jason Langley as Danny. © 2022 Pamela Raith.

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