I intend no criticism of this hugely entertaining and enjoyable show by pointing out that it’s a highly romanticised version of the already-improbable true story of the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of seafaring neighbours and shanty-singers who (with one exception) grew up “within half a mile of Port Isaac harbour” in Cornwall.
Having entertained their friends and, increasingly, tourists for years with their a cappella performances of historic, often ribald, sea shanties on the platt (beach) there, the ‘original buoy band’ was eventually spotted by intrigued and enthralled showbiz types. Lo and behold, their professionally-recorded debut entered the top ten and they began performing to acclaim in halls and at folk festivals such as Cambridge, eventually making a splash on the Glastonbury Pyramid Stage.
Meanwhile, they’ve continued working as fishermen or in other nautical activities, such as service as coastguards or lifeboatmen. It’s a stirring tale that’s already provided the basis for a not entirely accurate but efficiently feel-good film, with a sequel currently in cinemas, and it’s that version of their story that’s provided the basis for this equally feel-good stage musical. It might feel a tad padded-out here and there and the opening scenes may be a bit slow, but however predictable the overlaid love story and the eventual triumph of the common-man underdogs might feel, it would be an exceptionally hard-hearted theatregoer who didn’t soon find themselves enjoying and perhaps even singing along with this big-hearted celebration of fierce self-reliance, community, music, and respect for tradition.
The songs, most of them historical but sometimes more recently penned by the likes of Show of Hands or The Waterboys, not unreasonably tend to the stirring and crowd-pleasing, especially the ones reproducing the boisterous atmosphere of a Fisherman’s Friends show. But there’s enough room left for more reflective material, while the show obviously has a genuine regard for the intrinsic value and potency of the living folk tradition, boasting some well-respected working folk musicians among its sizeable cast.
Folk music, by definition, is the music of the people, and while some aspects of it may flutter in and out of mainstream appreciation, as the recent upsurge in popularity of sea shanties has demonstrated, it will never go away. Neither will the values it espouses, and many of the best of those can be found in this fine show.
Photos by Pamela Raith
Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, is at The Lowry until October 1, 2022. For more information, click here.