DramaLondonReview

Folk – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Nell Leyshon

Director: Roxana Silbert

In the age of streaming, music can become everyone’s property within seconds of it being made available, but, in the not too distant past, songs were not written down or recorded. They belonged to individuals, families and communities, passed down from generation to generation. Nell Leyshon’s new two-act play, receiving its world premiere here, explores the place of traditional folk songs in rapidly changing times.

It is 1903 in rural Somerset, and sisters Lucy and Louie occupy a small squatters’ cottage from which they work as glove makers. Their mother has died recently, leaving her songs implanted firmly in Louie’s head. While Lucy flirts with local boy John and plots an escape into the wider world, Louie mourns and she eventually meets a visiting academic, Sharp. He claims that Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have traditional folk songs, but not England, so he makes it his mission to discover the songs that define the English nation, put them onto paper and rearrange them.

In this studio theatre, Rose Revitt’s design has a strong Autumnal feel, suggesting the end of an era and director Roxana Silbert’s gently paced, un-melodramatic production underlines the sense of loss. A glove making factory is moving in to take the sisters’ work and popular entertainment is threatening to claim their mother’s songs. Their traditional ways of life are being swept away in a tidal wave of industrial and commercial forces..

Mariam Haque is outstanding as Louie, sorrowful, withdrawn and seemingly of low intellect, but finding steely resolve to defend what she believes to be her heritage. She also sings the songs sweetly, although, sadly, we hear too few of them. Simon Robson gives Sharp an air of educated arrogance, which is countered by the character’s admission of his own lack of musical talent. Sasha Frost as Lucy and Ben Allen as John make a zestful couple, hoping to improve their lives and become a spur for inevitable change.

At the heart of the play lie conflicting arguments between Sharp and Louie for progress and preservation, both presented by Leyshon in articulate form (perhaps more articulate than would be consistent with the character of a “simple” country girl). However the family drama in which the debates are encased feels too flimsy and contrived to be gripping and the play ends up as quietly charming, but short of dramatic substance.

Runs until 5 February 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Quietly charming

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