James Grieve, Director of Fisherman's Friends, The Musical
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview James Grieve, the director of ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ after the opening night show at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.
According to his website j.grieve.com, James is a freelance theatre director and was formerly Joint Artistic Director and CEO of the UK’s national theatre of new plays Paines Plough from 2010-2019 alongside George Perrin. During their tenure the company produced 44 world premieres on tour to 291 places across the UK and internationally by playwrights ranging from debutants to Olivier, Tony and BAFTA winners staged in historic proscenium arch playhouses and student union bars, at music festivals and The National Theatre, in village halls, Off-Broadway, on BBC Radio and televised on HBO.
James’s freelance directing credits include a new production of Kander & Ebb’s CABARET for Gothenburg Opera in Sweden in 2020 and the new musical THE ASSASSINATION OF KATIE HOPKINS for Theatr Clwyd which won Best Musical Production at The UK Theatre Awards 2018. James’ new production of LES MISERABLES for Wermland Opera in Karlstad, Sweden, was described as “world class” by DN and played for nearly two years in two theatres. His production of Brian Friel’s TRANSLATIONS for Sheffield Theatres, English Touring Theatre and The Rose Theatre Kingston won Best Production at The UK Theatre Awards 2014.
In 2001, James founded the new writing company nabokov with George Perrin and Ric Mountjoy. The company forged an international reputation for presenting theatre events everywhere from pubs to warehouses to music festivals to Off-Broadway, including James’ production of Mike Bartlett’s ARTEFACTS in London, New York and on tour.
James trained as assistant and associate to Josie Rourke, and as staff director to Howard Davies at The National Theatre, and on The National Theatre Directors Course.
He was awarded an MBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours List 2020 for services to theatre.
This was my first opportunity to conduct a live interview after a performance so many thanks to Mirvish Productions for this opportunity to speak with James.
From what I could tell looking around me on the opening night of ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical, the audience exited the theatre in tremendous high spirits because there was pure blissful joy emanating from the stage. What words of encouragement did James give to the cast before opening night:
“I just told them to enjoy themselves. When you spoke about that joy earlier, Joe, that’s very real on that stage. Although they’re acting as characters, these are very real human beings who love deeply and passionately performing and acting, but most of all singing. The musicians love making music and they change instruments in the blink of an eye.”
James then laughed and said he didn’t have to go and motivate them. They do it themselves before each performance.
James is equally as thrilled to be invited to this ‘beautiful, beautiful, Royal Alexandra’ and to be warmly welcomed by the crew and everyone here. The creative team for ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ had been in Toronto for just over a week and a half and it has been a thrill and a privilege to bring the show over the Atlantic and to receive such a wonderful reception.
Why does Toronto need a show like ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ right now?
James calls the production a universal story about ordinary people who don’t seek fame and fortune but have extraordinary spirit and talent. Fame and fortune find them instead. ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ is a story about friendship, community, and love:
He further adds:
“In a complicated and oppositional world and difficult a lot of the time, there’s space for a story that reminds us of the real importance of the core values of being a human being. Family, friendship, community, and a love of music all play a part in this. Through telling the story of these guys, we’ve come to understand more of what they stand for as a group. The world needs some sea shanties now and then.”
As an artist for what he calls ‘twenty-something years’, James feels extremely fortunate to be part of the theatre industry which is not a straightforward profession. He feels tremendously fulfilled hugely and personally in doing something he loves and that is a rare and wonderful thing for him. For any aspiring artists, singers or dancers who might have seen this opening night show or who will see an upcoming performance, James tells them to work hard, delve into their passion and find out what makes them happy as an artist because the theatre industry is very competitive and a difficult profession.
How has he felt about Covid’s ongoing presence worldwide and its effect on the theatre industry?
As an artist, what James felt he missed the most was the sense of community that comes not only from working in theatre but going to the theatre. It’s extraordinary to be in a live audience that you can’t get from watching television at home. What James felt was missing was the ritual and the preparation of going to the theatre – getting dressed up, going to the city, getting a drink, sitting down, reading the programme, and waving to people whom you might know in the audience.
James has returned to the theatre with a renewed sense of theatre's importance in a constantly shifting and changing world. Although we are still in the throes of Covid, this extraordinary special thing theatre does every night for audiences has almost a greater value than ever before at a time when people need human contact to experience something collectively.
‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ runs until January 15. After Toronto, the production returns to Nottingham, England, home of Robin Hood and continues its UK tour running through until June 2023.
One of the most exciting parts for James is the show’s return to the Hall for Cornwall in May. ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ opened there a bit over a year ago in its home county among the people whose lives and culture they are representing on the stage. James fervently stated everyone is excited to take the show back home to Cornwall.
What’s next for James Grieve once ‘Fisherman’s Friends, the Musical’ concludes its run?
“I am doing a new musical about the life of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister who has led an extremely colourful life. We are putting his story on stage in London and I’m really excited to do that.”
To learn more about ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’, follow fishermanonstage.com