13 years ago some singing fishermen from the Cornish village of Port Isaac found musical fame, earning a £1 million record deal with a major label. The group were known locally for their a cappella performances of sea shanties in the village harbour and their passion for traditional seafarers music ended up earning them a top 10 record on the album charts. The group’s heartwarming rise to fame was adapted into a 2019 film and in 2021 the film was transformed into a new musical stage show. Touring regional theatres and offering a completely different melodic style to traditional musical theatre, Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is a theatrical tribute to Port Isaac, Cornwall and life by the sea.
This week Canterbury audiences get to set sail for the South West of England as Fisherman’s Friends has taken over The Marlowe Theatre. Bringing regional maritime tunes from the 1800s with them, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review the Cornish musical whilst it is in Kent. The show uses artistic licence to sensationalise the group’s journey to a record deal and Glastonbury, but the core of the story remains true: it all started with a few singing fishermen and they were discovered by visiting music professionals.
The last time I watched anything remotely similar was Come From Away at London’s Phoenix Theatre, but this show focused on the musical roots of Newfoundland in Canada. Although a similar sound, Fisherman’s Friends is far more stripped back and focuses on vocal blending. Supported by a light instrumental backing, the harmonies are exquisite and I frequently ended up with goosebumps.
What pleasantly surprised me was how much the entire cast got involved with the singing. I originally thought that the attention would be on the fishermen, but in reality every Port Isaac character had the opportunity to join in with a sea shanty. It was fascinating to watch the band and fishermen collaborate in recreating these historic tunes.
In terms of the traditional folk songs, (What shall we do with the) Drunken Sailor, Shanty Man and Cousin Jack were highlights of the setlist for me, but the original song ‘Village by the Sea’ was a standout favourite. This song represents the spirit of the entire production and what it means to live in Port Isaac. The audience gets to hear the piece of music twice throughout the musical and it is just as moving the second time, reflecting the community spirit of the county.
Movement and choreography
The use of movement throughout Fisherman’s Friends gives the production so much life. Matt Cole and Lindsay Atherton’s choreography accentuates the sea shanties and celebratory pub atmosphere, enhancing the fishermen’s performances. Specifically, it is wonderful to see traditional Cornish folk dancing make an appearance, with the performers cheerfully hopping and skipping across the stage. There are a few places where the synchronicity between the musicians and main cast could be sharper, but Fisherman’s Friends is inspired by real people and in a way, this contributes to the authenticity of the piece.
The standout roles for me were Alwyn: Jim’s daughter (Parisa Shahmir) and Maggie: Jim’s mother (Susan Penhaligon). Parisa Shahmir has a beautiful voice and her opening performance of ‘Village by the Sea’ is truly enchanting.
Susan Penhaligon is also absolutely hilarious as Maggie. Her matchmaking skills and role as the fun and affectionate grandmother made me smile on many occasions. She is the heart and soul of the community and always manages to generate laughter.
A new favourite?
Fisherman’s Friends* is a maritime masterpiece that hits all of the right notes. This new musical is incredibly inspiring, from its folk influences to the creative use of movement. Audiences will instantly fall for the original song ‘Village by the Sea’ and want to explore captivating Cornwall. The musical is playing at The Marlowe Theatre until Saturday and the last few remaining tickets can be purchased from the theatre’s website.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*My ticket for Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical was gifted in exchange for a review of the performance.