Review: FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS: The Musical

by Lynn on December 3, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Plays until January 15, 2023.

Written by Amanda Whittington

Music as performed by Fisherman’s Friends

Based on a screenplay by Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, Piers Ashworth

Directed by James Grieve

Choreography by Matt Cole

Set and costumes by Lucy Osborne

Lighting by Johanna Town

Sound by Dan Samson

Musical director, James Findlay and James William-Pattison

Musical supervisor and arrangements, David White

Cast: Dan Buckley

Robert Duncan

James Gaddas

Fia Houston-Hamilton

Jason Langley

Susan Penhaligon

Parisa Shahmir

Anton Stephans

Plus other singers and musicians.

A raucous, lively show of toe-tapping traditional shanty songs loosely wrapped in a slight story of being ‘discovered’.

The Story. The story of the discovery and success of Fisherman’s Friends, an a cappella ‘band of singers’ from Port Isaac in Cornwall, England, is the stuff of dreams and feel-good musicals. In Amanda Whittington’s book of the musical the Fisherman’s Friends are singing their shanty songs in their pub, as they do after a day working on their fishing boats. They are friends, fishermen and have lived in Port Isaac for most of their lives. One fellah arrived from elsewhere 30 years before and stayed.

As luck would have it Danny Anderson a tourist visiting the small fishing village, heard them sing in the pub and thought immediately he could get them a record deal and make them famous. Danny was a record producer with Island Records until he was cut off from the company because of his various dependencies on drugs and drink.

Making the ‘band’ famous, and they hoped, rich, would help enormously. One of the singers also inherited the pub which was losing money and which owed a fortune in taxes. Danny needed this to redeem his reputation.

The story has been celebrated. The band got their record deal. The album landed in the top 10 of albums. Two movies were made of the group’s story and they travelled the world giving concerts, always returning home to work as fishermen, sing in the pub and enjoy each other’s company.

The Production. Lucy Osborne has designed a huge multi-leveled set that is supposed to be mainly the pub in this tiny village and a few other locations. It all seems rather grand to me.

 Lucy Osborne’s costumes are a cross between rustic and functional. Occasionally the fishermen’s slicker-coveralls are worn and dirty from use, but often they seem rather pristine—odd for hard-working fishermen.  James Grieve’s direction is unnecessarily busy, with characters scurrying all over the place, often moving for no reason except to look like they are all busy. The scenes when the men go out fishing are very effective as a small boat is ‘created’ with simple blocks and set pieces shifted about by ropes. You get a sense of the rough waters as the sailors shift and sway from side to side of the boat.

More than anything, this is a concert of the Fisherman’s Friends singing songs that are traditional and often 200 years old, passed down from grandfather to father to son.  It’s mostly a cappella but there is accompaniment from musicians, weaving in and out of the action, playing the melodeons, drums, violin, whistle, ukulele, bouzouki, and Anglo Concertina to name a few.     The cast sing the rousing shanty songs in beautiful harmony. Johanna Town’s lighting is more suited to a rock concert as is Dan Samson’s sound design. Often with all the drumming, music in the background and over amplification, it is hard to make out what anyone was saying—they all talk quickly with little focus on who is talking.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is a show that wants to be more than just a concert. But with 32 songs of which 3 are reprises, in which song follows song, that is what it really is—a concert—with the occasional bit of information about Danny and his schemes to get the group a recording contract. There are lots of dangling story bits that make no sense—the pub is sort of saved but it’s not explained how the back taxes will be paid since the new owner has no money. Perhaps we are to ignore these glitches and just enjoy the singing. With two movies about the group and albums of their work one wonders why anyone thought a musical was a natural progression since the book is so weak.  

Mirvish Production Presents:

Plays until: January 15, 2023.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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