With so much being said recently about new British musical theatre, I am pleased to report that Fisherman’s Friends the Musical proves we can still do it. Based on the true tale of Port Isaac’s all male shanty singing group who rose to fame, the story was made into a film in 2019 and has now been transformed into an actor/musician masterpiece.
The whole piece is inspiring, joyful and warm, drawing together the essence of community, heritage and love. Before the curtain has even risen we can feel a buzz of anticipation in the auditorium. The sudden opening hit of a male chorus, arranged phenomenally by David White, and mixed with Lucy Osborne’s dynamic design of a moving boat thrusting its way through the waves, immediately pulls us straight to the shores of Cornwall. What is then revealed is a representation of Port Isaac that will make those who know the place smile. With the pub appearing through dockyard doors in one corner and London’s Soho behind another, Osborne has truly created the perfect world for director James Grieve’s vision.
At the heart of this piece is the music. Jim Arnold and Grace McInerny have assembled an incredibly talented cast, whose voices blend like honey. Combining the spirit of the arrangements by the original Fishermen themselves with White’s adaptation of their songs for the stage means there is someone in the audience moved to tears during most numbers.
James Gaddis plays Jim, with a rasp that is refreshing, honest, and proves there is more to musical theatre voices than our current West End suggests. His performance is – well actually for once I don’t know how to describe it, except perfect: every note has intention, every line a reason. Similarly, Parisa Shahmir as Alwyn must be hugely congratulated. Her voice is spellbinding, and one of the most beautiful female folk voices I’ve ever heard in a musical. When she sings she doesn’t need extravagant lights or blocking: she and a simple guitar captivate everyone. The Fishermen themselves are remarkable. Their blend of voices is exceptional, and I even heard one audience member ask if they were the real band!
The biggest shout out, though, must go to the actor/musicians, who truly are the key to the show. Led beautiful by James William-Pattison, they move across the stage with impressive ease as they perform, proving once again to the industry that actor musicians are the future and should be hugely celebrated! Matt Cole’s choreography puts these players in the spotlight, with double basses being thrown over shoulders and characters playing spoons on each other’s legs.
Amanda Whittington’s script perfectly captures the Cornish humour and heart. It goes from having the audience howling with laughter to crying. The fast jokes, often landed perfectly by Dakota Starr as Ben, are mixed with the hard facts of Cornish life, ensuring this show is far from a caricature. Praise must also go to Johanna Town, most notably for her lighting design during the boat search party, and to Dan Samson’s sound design, which lifts the vocals and instruments throughout.
Overall, Fisherman’s Friends is a masterpiece. Although its UK tour closes on 20 May I am sure this is not the last we’ve seen of this show. It is British theatre at its best and deserves a place in the West End.
Directed by : James Grieve
Book byr : Amanda Whittington
Choreography by : Matt Cole
Set & costume design by : Lucy Osborne
Musical supervision & arrangement by: David White
Lighting design by: Johanna town
Sound Design by: Dan Samson
Original musical direction by : James Findlay
Musical direction by: James William-Pattison
Fisherman’s Friends plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 20 May, which will complete its current tour. Further information and bookings can be found here.