Folk review: folk music play hits a bum note

Review at a glance

Oh dear. In this stiff production by Roxana Silbert, Nell Leyshon’s “play with songs” about the history of English folk music addresses interesting questions about who owns a nation’s culture with clunking obviousness. Which is ironic, given it’s about a man who supposedly saved England’s folk heritage by stripping it of complexity and nuance.

In 1903 Cecil Sharp began writing down, editing and rearranging songs passed between generations of the rural working class in Somerset. His promotion of this oral lyric tradition fed into the mid-century English classical music revival, 60s pop and modern folk, and he did similar work on Morris Dancing and Appalachian song. He was also, by all accounts, a thoroughly nasty, misogynist piece of work and arguably a cultural plunderer.

Somerset-born Leyshon fabricates a fuzzy-edged, discursive story around four real people, playing fast and loose with the scanty facts. Which is and always would be fine, if the results were dramatically interesting. Sadly, here, Leyshon concentrates on a soupy, My Fair Lady-esque, master-pupil relationship between Sharp and uneducated glovemaker Louie (Louisa) Hooper, where the simple and initially timorous country girl teaches the city smartarse a thing or two.

A pragmatic affair between Louie’s sister Lucy (Sasha Frost) and truculent labourer John England (Ben Allen) is there to illustrate the earthiness and the transience of their lives. John’s choice is poverty, a new-fangled factory, or emigration. People talk about “the machines taking over” as if this were some offshoot of the Matrix franchise, set in the past and a few miles outside Taunton.

Mostly, though, the play consists of Simon Robson’s Sharp and Mariam Haque’s Louie arguing about music. Song flowers within her: he wrestles it into submission. He smirks: she stares, quivering, into the middle distance. He waxes lyrical about books (“astonishing objects”), she plays the spoons. She’s inspired by birds and fields, he by an ideal of England. Often, Leyshon gives us a dig in the ribs about contemporary English nationalism.

When Haque first sings – kneeling on a rug, unaccompanied of course, in an affecting tremolo – it’s very moving, but also a relief from all the author-splaining. Leyshon won the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award in 2005 for the excellent Comfort Me With Apples at Hampstead. Here her writing is laboured and talky. When its planned staging was thwarted by Covid, this play was produced by Radio 3, and it’s tempting to suggest that radio is where it really belongs.

It’s not a total disaster as live theatre. For those not automatically repelled by a play about folk music, there’s pleasure to be had in the ideas behind the script, and the subtler moments from Haque and Frost. Their singing is sweet and the classic folk songs Leyshon weaves in are a treat. But dear me, this isn’t how London theatre was supposed to start in 2022. This celebration of song strikes a bum note.

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