[Review] Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical was undoubtedly the catch of the day at Oxford’s New Theatre

By Jessica Durston - 15 March 2023

Arts and CultureOpinion and Features
  • Image credit - Pamela Raith

    Image credit - Pamela Raith

Swindon Link’s Jessica Durston was invited to the press night performance of Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, at the impeccably, thematically, decorated New Theatre in Oxford.

  • Image credit - Pamela Raith

    Image credit - Pamela Raith

It’s a fact.

You will fall hook, line, and sinker in love with this show.

This wholesome tale from director James Grieve and writer Amanda Whittington follows a group of fishermen who spend their life doing what they love best…fishing, singing, and drinking together at their favourite pub – The Golden Lion.

This feel-good show invites audience members to join the crew on their journey from singing for their friends and family in Cornwall, to making it big and performing a slot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. When London-based music mogul Danny visits the village of Port Isaac and stumbles upon the incredible voices of an unassuming group of fisherman, the two different cultures clash. Just like a trip out at sea, there’s plenty of ups and downs, and stormy patches, but the group prove that love and support from your friends, family, and hometown, can help you achieve the impossible.

Firstly, Lucy Osbourne’s staging design is outstanding and sets the scene for the show. No expense is spared in turning the New Theatre’s stage into the interior of a traditional Cornish pub, or having the cast appear to be aboard a boat on the high seas, or even partying in a London bar. The players were positioned wisely, to fill the stage and leave not a corner of the set unused. Especially during the scenes taking place in the Golden Lion – as an audience member, you were drawn in to the warmth and camaraderie, and felt part of the gang.

There was a big effort to create verisimilitude which helped immerse the audience member in the story further. It felt very naturalistic – as if you are really in the pub with the cast. The show transports you away to Port Isaac. Also, the frequent use of warm and bright lighting also helped to reflect the cosiness of the beloved Golden Lion pub, and helped further play up naturalism.

The moveable boat set piece was a real showstopper, operated by the fishermen on a system of rope pulleys. The sloping stage floor cleverly helped to tilt things, to create the illusion of the movement of waves under the boat. Furthermore, the scene transitions were smooth and accompanied by shanties to move things along seamlessly. Music really underpins the narrative of this musical.

Complimenting the excellent staging design, was Amanda Whittington’s snappy dialogue, which was witty, heartfelt, and as fluid as the sea.

So let’s now take the time to talk about the incredible cast. The individuals making up the Fisherman’s Friends band looked as if casting director Jim Arnold CDG did indeed ‘cast’ his net into a quaint pub in Port Isaac and pull the men up, to place them on stage. They were all believable as fishermen with their strong builds – and with help from Lucy Osbourne’s unassuming and authentic costume decisions.

The Fisherman’s Friends members were all fantastic. Their conversation and boyish banter with one another was endearing. Their charisma and chemistry with one another was evident and really pulls the show together. Rather like a real fishing boat’s crew, the cast works so successfully because all of them toil and sing together.

I feel I cannot pick out a favourite, or the ‘best’ performer, because each of the characters have their own personalities and loveable qualities. It is rare this happens. I will, however, say that James Gaddas (who plays Jim) has the most perfect gravelly fisherman voice, both when singing, and delivering his dialogue, and plays his gruff but warm-hearted character wonderfully.

Additionally, Pete Gallagher’s portrayal of the character Leadville garnered the most laughs from the audience with his silliness and physical comedy gags. I feel I also cannot go without mentioning that Hadrian Delacey - who took on the role of Archie - showcased some breath-taking vocals and I found my eyes and ears often drawn towards him during the group numbers.

Complimenting the masculine energy from the Fisherman’s Friends, and Danny (the city boy, played by the effervescent Jason Langley, who learns a new appreciation for Cornish culture and for music) is Parisa Shahmir who is cast as the strong-willed songstress Alwyn. Parisa, joined by Hazel Monaghan (as Sally) and Janet Mooney (as Maggie), inject some feminine energy into the narrative, give as good as they get, and banter along with everyone just as well as their male castmates do.

Moreover, the supporting cast members play a whole host of different instruments on stage, which is not only impressive, but helps to create the rustic feel of the folk-loving community in Cornwall who are always appreciative of a good shanty sing-song. Audience members are treated to the sounds of the guitar, the mandolin, the violin, the melodeon, and the harmonica - to name just a few.

While we’re at it, let’s talk some more about the music. The whole cast sounded so ethereally beautiful together, that as an audience member, you felt like you were witnessing something from Cornish folklore on the stage in front of you.

The harmonies and group vocals are very moving and the power of their collective sound is magical. All the cast members’ voices meld perfectly, as if they were born to come together to perform. The show’s collection of different sea shanties have the power to either raise your spirits, fill you with warmth, give you goosebumps, or have you in tears – or sometimes all of the above at once.

Every single shanty was absolutely brilliant and you couldn’t help but find your toe tapping to every number, along with the men. Although every song that appears on the musical’s extensive soundtrack is a shanty, it is not at any point tiresome, and the vocals from the main band of fishermen do not falter even once – they remain strong throughout.

Furthermore, the staging of the cast’s performance of the song ‘Keep Hauling’ is undeniably memorable. The cast members scatter across the stage and move together in low, blue, lighting like a wave, ebbing and flowing, being lulled by the pure and siren-like lead vocals of Parisa Shahmir (who plays Alwyn). It’s a thing to behold.

Tidal Pool was also a truly beautiful stand-out performance from Parisa Shahmir, showcasing her wonderful voice further and how suited it is to the folk genre. As I mentioned earlier, Alwyn really embodies the siren she sings of so frequently.

Moving on, the show’s choreography seemed non-stop throughout, and the consistent high-energy from all the cast members was outstanding. Choreographer Matt Cole ensured there was little-to-no time that the stage was left bare or absent of dancing. Each scene, as a result, feels so alive.

There’s nothing fishy about why this musical is so popular – it touches your heart and soul, and celebrates heritage, love, family, community, and music in its purest form. What’s not to love, right? So what are you waiting for… hook yourself a ticket, set sail for Oxford’s New Theatre, and drop anchor for a inescapably enjoyable evening.

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