Perhaps this charming real-life story of unlikely success – which saw a group of singing Cornish fisherman find fame – has been recycled one too many times. First there was the hit album (2010). Then came a decent film (2019) and a not so decent sequel (2022). Now we have Amanda Whittington’s stage musical, based on the original screenplay. It’s a solid script with some lovely flickers of humour and cynicism, particularly concerning the tension between the hardy Cornish locals and fair-weather tourists. But it’s a story we’ve heard many times before, arguably in more suitable forms.
The shanty songs work best when they’re barely being performed. London music exec Danny (a nicely nuanced Jason Langley) first spots the fishermen singing on the beach as the gulls caw overhead in a scene which captures the distilled beauty of the sea shanty. Later the group travel to London and sing for a music agent, with their backs turned to the audience. Their faces concealed, the music takes on an extra power and something very pure, warming and timeless rises up through their song.
Director James Grieve has clearly worked hard to hold on to the rough-hewn authenticity that made the Fisherman’s Friends such a success. The colours are kept muted throughout Lucy Osborne’s rig-inspired set and Johanna Town’s moody elemental lighting scheme. The performances, particularly from lead singer James Gaddas, are suitably un-showy and the musicians, with their simple instruments (including beer crate drums and an awful lot of foot-stomping), feel like an organic part of the ensemble.
But the conventions of the musical, inevitably, start to muscle in on the action. The fishermen perform one too many times at the local pub or keep bursting out into not-so-spontaneous song. It all feels a little bit awkward and, most crucially, artificial. It’s the songs performed by Danny’s love-interest Alwyn that make the biggest impact. Parisa Shahmir is a very natural musician and when she sings of the need to “keep hauling”, despite the very real possibility of heartbreak and loss, the music and musical work in perfect harmony.
At Theatre Royal Bath until 5 November. Then touring until 20 May.