Danny (Jason Langley) and Fisherman's Friends leader Jim (James Gaddas) finally bury their differences and agree to a demo recording.
There's sea shanties galore as the Fisherman's Friends sail into town
Alan Wooding dons his sou'wester and enjoys a musical evening in Milton Keynes packed with the best that Cornwall has to offer
Tuesday, 4 October 2022
"You're in for a real treat and you'll love it," suggested a good friend who went to see Fisherman's Friends: The Musical at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre a couple of weeks ago – and I must admit he was dead right following the opening night at Milton Keynes Theatre!
I loved the 2019 film about the Cornish fisherman's choir and was also impressed when Nathan Evans topped the UK singles charts 18 months ago with his quirky sea shanty Wellerman. So when Milton Keynes Theatre announced that the stage show was coming earlier this year, I'd already made up my mind to go and see it.
Fishermen's Friends is based on the true story about a group of singers from Cornwall's picturesque Port Isaac who get together to sing traditional sea shanties. Many of the shanties had been passed down through the generations and, like the gospel songs in America's Deep South, they are basically catchy working choruses which are sung as the fishermen haul in their nets or pull up their anchors.
Written by Amanda Whittington and directed by James Grieve, this brand new feelgood Fisherman's Friends show features loads of catchy hit shanties made famous by the band including Keep Haulin’, Nelson's Blood and the brilliant No Hopers Jokers & Rogues.
With stage lights dimmed in the opening sequence, you can just make out the outline of a small craft being buffeted by the sea which immediately reminds the audience just how fragile life can be as these men risk everything at the mercy of the elements. Then once the a cappella singing starts, you witness the men working together in perfect harmony. They're then joined on stage by an eight-piece band playing mainly traditional instruments who also join in with the singing and dancing.
It's a story of real comradeship among the fishermen and, when Danny Anderson (Jason Langley), an ex-A&R man with Island Records pops into the local pub – he's supposedly visiting Cornwall for a wedding – he's so impressed with their harmonies and overall sound, that he suggests they make a demo recording in the hope he can secure them a record deal.
At first they're all rather sceptical of his enthusiasm but Danny soon fits in and wins them over, even though pub landlord and landlady Rowan (Dan Buckley) and Sally (Hazel Monaghan) are worried that success could interfere with their cosy community.
Danny, who starts off as an arrogant Cockney wideboy, strikes up a relationship with Alwyn (Parisa Shahmir), the attractive daughter of the singing group’s leader Jim (James Gaddas) – and predictably Jim really wants this village interloper to stay well away from his daughter! But it's Danny (who incidentally has also passable singing voice), becomes the butt of many of the fishermen's jokes.
I particularly loved Alwyn's rendition of Village by the Sea as she plays the guitar while the cast – often accompanied by an accordion, acoustic guitar, mandolin, squeeze box, harmonica, banjo, cello and violin – perform a string of songs including the jaunty Leave Her Johnny Leave Her and Pay Me My Money Down. They're mixed up with A Sailor Ain't a Sailor, Haul Away Joe, A Ship in Distress and the fabulous John Kanaka which encouraged the audience to clap and sing along… while of course the traditional Blow The Man Down also had to be included.
Special mention of Robert Duncan as Jago (Jim's dad) and fishermen Anton Stephans (Leadville), Pete Gallagher (Wiggy), Dakota Starr (Ben) and Hadrian Delacey (Archie) who all had remarkable voices. Meanwhile I've always loved the wonderful Susan Penhaligon ever since first seeing her alongsde Frank Finley in the 1974 television drama Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Susan plays Maggie, the 'mother hen' figure of the Cornish village who they turn to when thing aren't going too smoothly.
The on-stage band of multi-instrumentalists were superb although I've picked out John O'Mahoney (harmonica, bouzouki, ukulele and concertina), Beccy Hurst (whistle and concertina) and Louisa Beadel (Morwenna) – who kept perfect time with a drum – as standout performers.
Every song seemed to be introduced by a different group member while the magical harmonies – a mix of superb baritones and tenors – had the audience on their feet when it came to South Australia and No Hopers, Jokers & Rogues at the finale. Meanwhile thanks to Danny's persuasive nature, the group had risen to recording stardom and also found themselves playing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury!
Full marks also to Lucy Osborne’s clever set which creates just the right atmosphere while besides the wonderful singing, there's also plenty of dancing and Matt Cole's choreography easily switches from the inside of Port Isaac's Golden Lion pub to a trendy Soho 'gay bar' via the Cornish village's sea wall. However en route to London, as the Cornishmen's bus crossed the River Tamar, upon seeing the 'Welcome to Devon' sign, it was immediately 'christened' by one of the fishermen relieving himself!
Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is truly a feelgood show and I left the theatre humming at least one of its catchy shanties. It plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday with tickets from the Box Office, by calling 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.com/MiltonKeynes (booking fees apply).