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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical

ROYO, Flying Fish Productions, Island Records, Mighty Village, David Mirvish

Genre: Adaptation, Biographical Drama, Comedic, Contemporary, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

A glorious night out, a wonderful cast and in Shahmir a mesmerising star in the making.

Directed by James Grieve, Choreographer Matt Cole, Set Design & Costume Designer Lucy Osborne, Musical Supervisor and Arrangements David White, Lighting Design Johanna Town, Sound Designer Dan Samson, Assistant Director Max Lindsay.

Production Management Lee Batty & Andy Fox for setting Line, Costume Supervisor Alexandra Stewart, Associate Lighting Designer Callum MacDonald, Props Supervisor Ryan O’Conner for ROC Props, Casting Jum Arnold CDG, Voice and Dialect Emma Woodvine.

Till March 11th and touring


If you’ve ever wondered what getting punch-drunk on shanties might be like, reel away to this. Amanda Whittington’s 2019 adaptation of the 2018 film of Fisherman’s Friends is cunningly retitled Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, now at Theatre Royal Brighton, directed by James Grieve.

Based on a true story, Whittington threads a plot through bursts of shanties, magnificently sung in an equally magnificent production; dramatically little happens till the second half when everything crowds in.

The plot’s simple but Whittington does thankfully pull several late twists, starting with the end of the first act. Flailing A&R rep Danny (Jason Langley) finds a less than warm welcome from locals when he blows in to the Golden Lion, but as we already know he’s in for the shock of his life. That’s after his Range Rover’s drowned by the tide.

Led by embittered Jim (James Gaddas) whose wife left him and their daughter singer/B&B owner Alwyn (Parisa Shahmir) for London, the nine-strong male ensemble blow Danny away. As does of course a particular local.

His old boss though – Leah (Fea Houston-Hamilton) – isn’t impressed by what he finally persuades the men to sing. But Danny has a plan. The freewheeling second act takes us to a London gay bar, ad-hoc a cappella outside a flat, and back to Cornwall for several plot-twists.

Langley’s limber, balletic and winning as the occasionally pratfalling and well-meaning schemer Danny. Gaddas in a permanent bass-baritone gruff (how can his voice last?) dour, London-loathing and lonely man pours his love into the band, his work and his daughter. He and the oldest member Jago (Robert Duncan) anchor the group. Duncan’s character, 72 and still fishing, is drawing to retirement (just crab-fishing!), waxing on the consolations of philosophy – Marcus Aurelius and Coleridge, even if he later takes Bono as Boneo. It’s a warm counter to Gaddas’ quietly grieving Jim.

Jago’s free-handed partner Maggie (Janet Mooney) performs the same task for the women with equal warmth. Leadville (Pete Gallagher) leads some of the shanties with charismatic ebullience to counter Gaddas’ gravelly authority, joined by raucously bracing contributions from Yestin (Dominic Brewer), Wiggy (Martin Carroll), Ben (Dakota Starr) and Archie (Hadrian Delacey, also Resident Director).

Elsewhere Sally (Hazel Monaghan) and Rowan (Dan Buckley) struggle to keep the Golden Lion pub going, another plot-point: and Whittington draws various inter-relationships, tender duets (Gaddas, Shahmir), even eulogies (Mooney) where each actor glints in a collective brilliance.

Many of the shanties you’ll know, even sang at school given new twists and lyrics. There’s even a new version of Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ (not the John Ireland setting) for Duncan, but of all soloists it’s when the women in the company sing that we’re given a welcome vocal shift from the a cappella men. David White’s musical supervision never lets the sheerly musical momentum drop, and Matt Cole’s choreography is ever-active, seamlessly moving cast about so there’s no chance of the physical energy dropping either.

And Shahmir is frankly outstanding. Already known for her musical career, she here gives the soul of the evening in guitar and vocals that are quite heart-stopping. Alwyn doesn’t want to record, or go on to fame. It’s enough she sings, rooted there. Shahmir brings her initially forbidding and funny character to life, then shows Alwyn’s plangent and sheer reach. Worth coming for her alone.

But the whole ensemble is superb, even if the singing might have been pruned to allow a little more direction and narrative energy. There’s huge assistance from Lucy Osborne’s set and costumes – an upper gallery features band equipment reached by vertical ladders, whilst below the pub area sometimes mists over with a gauze curtain whilst a very effective boat emerges at the beginning and twice thereafter, vividly painting peril at sea as well as comedy. Special shout-out too for Johanna Town’s beautiful lighting – the sky at the back very subtly shifting, tonally ravishing, as well as the spotlighting and tenebrous effects elsewhere. Dan Sampson’s sound is tight and never overwhelming.

The other actor-musicians all deserve praise: Morwenna (Louisa Beadel), Ann (Mel Biggs, Hazel Askew), Freya (Hannah Cumming), Brian (Alfie Gidley), Grace (Beccy Hurst), Eddy (John O’Mahoney), Elys (Hazel Simmons), Frank (Nick Tizzard), Owen and Musical Director (James William-Pattison).

Grieve does his best to move the action along. Marvellous as the sheer cornucopia of songs on offer, a feast can be more than enough. Dare I say some more of the shanties might have been reduced to a single stanza, since the most telling are often the quietest like ‘Leave her, Johnny, leave her’ – though the sheer bravura of ensemble singing is breathtaking: well up to the polyphonic thew of the BBC Singers, now to be axed after nearly a century. Certainly the storyline hangs fire before Act 2 where we’re then exposed to what Whittington can twist and it comes pell-mell. A pity, since Whittington’s salt-sharp dialogue, one-liners and sheer fun are as infectious as ever.

Nevertheless, a glorious night out, a wonderful cast and in Shahmir a mesmerising star in the making.