Fisherman's Friends the Musical at Theatre Royal Bath and on tour – review
Sea shanties abound in the new musical
The small indie movie Fisherman's Friends became a rather big hit in 2019 and spawned a sequel despite it being rather disparaged by the critical community. You wonder if something similar will happen with this new stage musical, originally made for Hall for Cornwall, because although it feels rather slight in construction and its comedy is mostly tone-death, it seems to be doing a job in delighting those who have already decided they love it before coming through the door. The agnostics may be slightly harder to please.
It's in the strength of the sea shanties that are sung by the company that all the delights are found. Evocative, mysterious, and full of heart, the company is in rousing voice with some tight harmonies to die for all night. Some of the numbers are true knockouts. "South Australia" and "John Kanaka" in particular bring the house down. In a world where "Wellerman" dominated the charts for a number of weeks (there is a cheeky nod to it within the text), there is clearly a place in our current climate for these songs of yore. And so the production gives them to us. And some more. By the bucket load. Never a minute passes before another shanty breaks out. So, a flimsy, genetic take from adapter Amanda Whittington (the London AR man who finds purpose and yep, you guessed it, love in a local community) stretches out for over two and a half hours.
It's hard not to compare it to the smash musical Once that also found love in a cellular form first. Whereas that though, found a true theatrical vocabulary in John Tiffany's sensational production that took it to awards success on both sides of the Atlantic, this seems happier just to plonk the film on stage and call it quits. Director James Grieve manages to guide it from plot A to plot B without finding anything as striking as its first visual of the group of men out on the storm-ridden sea that we bear witness to as the curtain rises.
What it does have in its arsenal are some assured performances. From a surprisingly large company, there is stand-out work from James Gaddas' Jim, the gruff leader of the group who finds his family in the community, Parisa Shahmir as his daughter with her own dreams of a singing career, and Susan Penhaligon who brings gravitas and the odd acidic aside to the role of community matriarch. Originally Jason Langley as the London interloper feels a bit too Del Boy, all brash city boy stereotype, not so much a fish out of water, as a shark trapped in Port Talbot. But he settles down and the romance he forms between himself and Shanmir becomes sweet if rather formulaic.
Matt Cole's choreography is effective with its stamps and sways while Lucy Osbourne's set encompasses the pub, the sea, and a Soho haven. As a piece of theatre, it is all a bit safe but for the majority of the audience who just wanted to be enchanted by sea shanty earworm after earworm, it won't matter a jot. It knows its target audience and lands them all night.