Last Updated on January 6, 2022
Nell Leyshon’s story of the collection of English folk songs is as sensitive and touching as its music.
As someone whose knowledge of folk music begins and ends with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, this illuminating real-life story of English folk music was both touching and educational. Set in Somerset in 1903, Folk at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs follows the story of two half-sisters, Louie Hooper (Mariam Haque) and Lucy White (Sasha Frost). Working together as glovemakers, Louie and Lucy entertain themselves by singing the folk songs of their recently deceased mother. Louie’s talent is soon discovered by Cecil Sharp (Simon Robson), a music scholar and folk song ‘collector’ from London, who sets about writing down Louie’s mother’s songs. The script, by Somerset-born Nell Leyshon (Comfort me with Apples, Don’t Look Now) sensitively captures the moral grey area of folk song ‘collecting’ – whether Sharp is doing a service to British music by preserving the endangered folk tunes, or exploiting Louie for personal gain.
Mariam Haque’s performance as Louie Hooper is stunning. Haque’s voice is perfectly suited to the challenging songs she sings throughout – often without accompaniment – and she successfully captures both the naivety and passion of Hooper. Sasha Frost’s Lucy White complements Haque well, while the detachment of John England (Ben Allen) and the upper-class condescension of Cecil Sharp bring out the tensions in early 1900s England – both of class and gender. Simon Robson’s Sharp is utterly convincing.
Folk centres around several folk songs, and the play’s most powerful moments come when Sharp (and the audience) is captivated by Louie’s singing. Leyshon incorporates an education for the audience without it appearing artificial – Sharp plays Grieg on the piano to explain how folk songs are incorporated into formal classical music. In the restroom at the interval, everyone was whistling or singing one or two of the songs sung in the first half, a testament to the work of musical arranger and director Gary Yershon (Another Year, Mr Turner).
The story is also engaging. Roxana Silbert’s directing (Artistic Director, Hampstead Theatre) brings out the intimacy between Louie and Cecil – the play’s most convincing relationship. Tingying Dong’s sound design (Peggy for You, The Sun, The Moon and the Stars) incorporates birdsong, a source of inspiration for Louie’s folk songs.
For those with a keen interest in folk music, or for those with only the merest understanding, Folk is a treat. The origins of the folk ‘revival’ of the 20th century are displayed in a nuanced and engaging form. Folk is also a loving portrayal of Somerset and an important reminder of English history rooted in rural life. Cecil Sharp’s mission was to prove that England was not a “das land ohne musik” (land without music), and this production at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs does just that.Folk at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs runs until 5th February. You can buy tickets here.
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