As the world premiere production of Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical heads for Salford's Lowry (September 27-October 1) on its UK and Ireland tour, director James Grieve promises audiences “a feelgood, foot-stomping", sea-shanty musical telling the astonishing story of the world’s least likely boyband.
Based on the true story of the Cornish fisherman's choir and the 2019 film about them, the show has already played to full houses in its home area of Truro – in fact as the most successful production in the Hall of Cornwall's history.
Grieve is in no doubt why: the mix of comedy and drama was a thoroughly charming experience: “It’s so heart-warming to see a group of very normal, humble people achieve something extraordinary,” he says of the story of a bunch of fishermen who sing traditional working songs to raise money for charity – never expecting a record deal and to end up performing at Glastonbury.
“The real Fisherman’s Friends are ordinary blokes who work hard as fishermen, farmers, builders and shopkeepers; we all see ourselves in them," says Grieve. "They never sought fame and fortune but it found them, and it’s wonderful when good people get justly rewarded. More than a story about finding fame and fortune, it’s one about friendship, loyalty, community and the unbreakable ties that bind us, and it is full of humour.”
The multi-level set recreates the fishing village of Port Isaac, including the famous Golden Lion pub where the lads first begin singing. There’s also a life-size boat on stage!
“We wanted to capture the hard graft and danger of life as a working fisherman at the mercy of stormy weather and rough seas," explained Grieve. "I’m fortunate to be working with a world-class team of creatives who have summoned howling winds, towering waves and vicious storms through dazzling design, lighting, sound, choreography and music.”
As in the film, the audience discovers the Fisherman’s Friends through Danny, a music manager who stumbles across them in Cornwall.
Starring as group lead singer Jim, James Gaddas is no stranger to musicals with credits not only on TV but also in Billy Elliot and Mamma Mia! on stage: “But I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s earthy and visceral. The music is strong and grounded. It dates back up to 200 years, with the fishermen adapting it for today.”
The show has 37 musical numbers, including most of those from the film, with the singers accompanied by seven folk musicians. Gaddas says there’s a universality to the characters: “These are people you can relate to and we all want that magic moment when things turn around for everyday people doing everyday jobs.”
Robert Duncan – from St Austell – plays Jim’s father, Jago, who, in his 70s is the elder statesman of the group. He didn't hesitate to sign up for the cast: “It’s set in a place I know very well,” he says, “and I was excited about doing something from my own neck of the woods. And I’d never done a musical before. “Some of the things in it are peculiarly Cornish, but the idea of how the landscape shapes people is true wherever you go. Plus it’s about community and getting through things together, which is now more relevant than ever.”
Playing Jago’s wife Maggie is Susan Penhaligon – also raised in Cornwall. “Maggie's roots are in Cornwall and she’s typical in that she’s independent, free-thinking and tough. I love her and I feel like I know her,” Penhaligon says.
Fisherman’s Friends is only her second musical – she was Fräulein Schneider in the 2017 tour of Cabaret – a very different beast. “And I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” she recalls of singing on stage for the first time, “but by the end of the run they couldn’t get me off the stage.”
Writer Amanda Whittington has adapted the story for the stage: “It’s a fascinating world to explore and discover. Port Isaac and the fisherman’s way of life is rich territory for drama and the characters are funny, real and recognisable.
“Then of course there’s the sea shanties, which are beautiful and timeless. The traditional shanties are the backbone of the story but there’s also contemporary songs of the sea and wonderful new songs written specially for the show.”
The writer tried to balance fact and fiction, explaining: I love the fact it’s about a real place and time, yet it’s full of mythical and magical elements. It’s about making sure we stay true to the original fishermen’s story but embraces the possibilities theatre brings.”
More info and tickets here