In 1865, when Fleetwood pharmacist James Lofthouse realised that the small bottles, containing a mixture of liquorice, eucalyptus and menthol which he had concocted to help his fishermen friends cure sore throats, were causing problems at sea, he set about trying to find a better way to deliver his soothing medicine. The throat lozenge he came up with not only solved the problems, but turned this locally-made product into the global commercial success which it still is more than a century and a half later.
The story of The Fisherman’s Friends vocal group, who found themselves in the top ten album chart with their first album of sea shanties, is as unlikely a global success story as James Lofthouse’s soothing lozenges. The group, who all lived and worked in and around the Cornish village of Port Isaac, originally performed for the pure joy of singing or for the benefit of tourists, often raising money for local charities. That was until a visiting entrepreneur discovered them, leading to a record contract, a film of their lives, a TV documentary, an appearance on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival and singing for HM Queen Elizabeth II at her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Amanda Whittington, who has already shown a liking for tales about people who earn a living via fish (she wrote the play Ladies Day, which followed the fortunes of four lady fish filleters on their day at York races, the year the course stood in for Royal Ascot) took the screenplay for the 2019 film about the Fisherman’s Friends vocal group, and turned it into a stage musical based around many of the sea shanties that appeared on the original album. At those moments when the storyline becomes rather predictable, and occasionally over sentimental, a rousing chorus or beautifully presented solo song comes to the rescue, redressing the balance.
Director James Grieve, choreographer Matt Cole and music arranger David White were left with the difficult task of creating a production than kept the Cornish honesty of the characters and pure love of singing those sea shanties. They have done just that by integrating everyone within the company. Actors act as stage crew, moving props on the run, ensuring that Lucy Osborne’s sets change seamlessly from scene to scene, and the musicians playing many of the instruments you would associate with this genre of music – melodeons, concertina, mandolin, ukulele, banjo – all appear in character on stage.
All of this would be of no avail if the principal characters were not brought truly to life and were not able to reproduce the songs as originally and lovingly sung by Fisherman’s Friends. In James Gaddas, playing Jim the always-suspicious-of- strangers leader of the pack, Parisa Shahmir, bringing deep sincerity and passion to her vocals as Jim’s strong-willed daughter (Alwyn), outsider Jason Langley, (Danny) torn between the desire to exploit the Friends in his desire to return to the top of the popular music world and a genuine love of their work and lifestyle, Robert Duncan’s loveable wise old Grandfather (Jago), Susan Penhaligon, as Cornish as her name implies as Jago’s wife Maggie, backed by a large raft of expertly drawn supporting players, create characters who put Cornwall before everything else.
You can believe that, for all their success, this group sings for the love of it, not the money and fame. On the other hand the outsiders genuinely believe that the English buy their houses to rent them out to tourists and let the Spanish fish their waters. Whatever the audiences’ feelings about the effect of tourism on an area were at the start of the evening, by the end of this show the vast majority of them were backing the views of the Fisherman’s Friends.