Review: Fisherman’s Friends – the musical. Cambridge Arts Theatre

Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical

Cambridge Arts Theatre

25th April 2023

The true story of the Fisherman’s Friends caught the nation’s hearts in 2010, when the “rags to riches” tale of an unlikely group of singing fishermen saw them landing a Top 10 album, and going on to appear on the main stage at Glastonbury.  With a repertoire of sea shanties and a style deeply rooted in traditional folk music, the power of their acapella delivery and strong sense of community brought them legions of fans, and their story was translated to film in 2019.  Now it’s the stage’s turn, with a new musical adaptation which has been successfully touring since the summer of 2022, and is still going strong, playing this week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

While on holiday in Port Isaac, Cornwall, record producer Danny (Jason Langley) overhears a group of working fishermen performing on the harbour as they do every Friday evening.  Hearing a sound unlike anything he’s heard before, he begs former boss Leah (Fia Houston-Hamilton) to see them for a demo, but she refuses on the grounds that the group wouldn’t be commercial enough for the label.  Following his gut. Danny spurs the group on and convinces them to travel to London to perform for Leah in person, leading them to believe she’s already on board.  At the same time, he gets to know the locals, including talented singer-songwriter Alwyn (Parisa Shahmir), daughter of the gruffly-traditional Jim (James Gaddas), one of the Fisherman’s Friends strongest leaders, who holds his own reasons for distrusting “the big city”, and new parents Rowan (Dan Buckley) and Sally (Hazel Monaghan), who are drowning in debt and the burden of family responsibility.  Danny’s promise of a record deal may be the answer to all of their prayers, but breaking into this tight-knit community proves far harder than he imagined.

A musical with sea shanties at the heart of its score doesn’t sound immediately appealing, but “heart” is the key word here, and ‘Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical’ wears it firmly on its sleeve.  It creates a sense of community from the beginning, giving us a glimpse of a rough life at sea for our singing heroes (with some fantastic lighting from Lucy Osborne setting the scene) before showing them all celebrating afterwards as one in the local ‘Golden Lion’ pub.  The audience is with them from the start, and within minutes, director James Grieve makes us feel like we’re part of this community, sharing a drink with these hard-working men, and that bond and investment remains strong throughout the show.  Amanda Whittington’s book (based on the film screenplay) puts the characters first and makes them real people, flawed but strong, and there’s a great earthy humour throughout. 

The folk-styled music is the lifeblood of the show, running through every scene, and played with spirit and passion by the live band on stage. Some of the songs date back 200 years, and have been given new life thanks to David White’s beautiful arrangements.  Lyrics can be hard to decipher at times, and their message sometimes lost, but the effect is still rousing.  Choreography (Matt Cole) is simple but hugely effective, often using simple objects like crates and chairs to create movement and sound, along with simple foot-stomping.  At times the stage does feel perhaps a little too-overcrowded, but it does add to the atmosphere.  The show shares similarities to the equally-brilliant ‘Come From Away’ in many respects, and its sense of human connection is delivered just as effectively. 

The cast are terrific with no weak links; James Gaddas impresses as the “tough-as-boots” Jim and has a fantastic commanding presence whenever he’s on stage.  Jason Langley makes Danny rounded-enough to remain likeable even when the character is being an idiot, and has a palpable chemistry with Parisa Shahmir, who is just wonderful as Alwyn.  A voice from the angels, she stuns the room into silence whenever she sings, and is an absolute joy to listen to.

Musical theatre fans may be initially sceptical about ‘Fisherman’s Friends’, but the show tells a heart-warming story with determination and pride, and speaks volumes about the immortality of music and how it can unite us, particularly during the darkest of times, and a celebration of community and spirit.  As tender as waves lapping the shore, and as powerful as a raging storm, ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ drops its anchor into your soul and doesn’t let go.

‘Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 29th April 2023 before completing the remainder of its UK tour in May.

Performance run time 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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