The region’s cultural shores are currently awash with new musicals. Bolton’s Octagon Theatre is right now premiering, “The Book Thief – the musical”. A couple of weeks back, here at the Lowry, your doughty reviewer saw, “Identical – the musical,” and I’ll be back next month for “The Color Purple – the musical.” Tonight, meanwhile, it’s “Fisherman’s Friends – the musical”.
Is this a sign of a population in desperate need of a cheery song or two to lift its spirits? Perhaps. If so, batten down your hatches, me hearties, for a veritable tsunami of sea shanties is heading your way. “Fisherman’s Friends – the musical” showcases 32 (yes, thirty-two) songs; one or two new compositions, but mostly authentic folk and shanty (as verified by my music consultant for the night).
The (fact-based) story of Fisherman’s Friends, the shanty-singing ‘buoy band’ (not my pun) of Port Isaac in Cornwall, has been told several times (and has apparently not yet been squeezed quite dry: after this year’s “Fisherman’s Friends: One and All” film sequel, a further sequel is in development).
A&R man, Danny Anderson, arrives in the Golden Lion (serving ale to local fisherman since the mid-nineteenth century) to the kind of frosty welcome reserved for the most obnoxious of ‘emmets’ (look it up before you next visit Cornwall, and be forewarned). If he starts out lower than a crab’s belly, he soon digs himself into a lugworm’s burrow by conflating these proud Cornishmen (and women) with Dorset pop sensations, the Wurzels.
Narrowly escaping sharing the fate of his expensive car (which is about to be carried off by the incoming tide) Danny tries to redeem himself by promising the Fisherman’s Friends (all regulars at the Golden Lion) that he can get them a recording contract with Island Records. Some of the group are quite keen (like Rowan, who inherited, along with the Golden Lion, massive debt now threatening him, his wife and their newborn with bankruptcy and homelessness). Others, like founding member Jago (Robert Duncan) and son, Jim, are dead set against. Not without reservations, Jago’s granddaughter, Alwyn, persuades the men to record a demo. Fame, fortune and a headline gig at Glastonbury await…or do they?
Danny, we soon learn, is someone for whom the truth is a manageable inconvenience. In reality, he is no longer employed in A&R (Artist and Repertoire) development with Island Records. Neither is his (former) boss eager for the Friends to hurry up to London and audition for her in person. On Danny’s say so, and believing a deal is all but signed and delivered, the men head for the capital.
A further inconvenience for Danny is his growing affection – despite being firmly warned off by her dad, Jim – for Jago’s granddaughter, Alwyn.
Is the lying, manipulative, self-serving Danny on the verge of an enormous redemption? Given that he has already betrayed his pledge to honour the Friends’ code – Truth, Respect, and Community – things are not looking good. Will it all end in tears, or can it possibly end in chart success and the Pyramid stage at Glasto?
It may seem churlish to the point of perversity to suggest that a musical has too many songs but, particularly in act one, this is how it feels. Like an egotistical headline star, the shanties gobble up so much stage time, too little is left for character, dialogue and plot. The shanties themselves are often overlong – never mind hauling nets in Lundy or Sole, some of these shanties are long enough to haul in RMS Queen Mary, currently anchored in Long Beach, California.
The singing is exceptional but, before the interval, there is the sense of being at a concert with a bit of acting squashed, grudgingly, into the small gaps between the songs. This matters because, if we don’t care about Danny and Alwyn, Rowan (Dan Buckley) and wife Sally (Hazel Monaghan), and the rest, we don’t really have a musical drama.
Fortunately, after the break, the story and the songs work in much closer harmony – a trio between grandmother Maggie (bona fide Cornishwoman, Susan Penhaligon), and Alwyn and Sally is a dramatic highlight.
“What you’ll regret is the trouble you didn’t get into,” the older woman counsels, over a bottle of rosé Prosecco. Wise words, indeed.
A generous audience laps up the occasional salty humour. “Skip the medicine; suck on a Fisherman’s Friend!”
As noted, the Friends sing admirably and not always acappella; there is an ensemble of experienced and respected folk musicians (my music consultant asks that I make special mention of Louisa Beadel, drums and percussion, which I am happy to do).
Parisa Sharmir in the role of Alwyn (“the Patti Smith of Port Isaac”) shows off a fine, clear, tuneful voice, as well as a feisty charm. Dialogue that veers from prosaic to clunky proletarian “poetry” doesn’t help other cast members create a sense of character. Jason Langley’s Danny is stuck as a less than endearing, youthful clone of Bradley Walsh.
Stepping up for the night, Hadrian Delacey fares better as Jim, but he does have the advantage of that fabulous singing voice.
It’s quite a long show (150 minutes plus interval) – room for ruthless editing, I’d say – but there’s plenty to enjoy in the music, even so.
The audience, by the way, loves it. Spirits duly raised (without a smuggler in sight).