Folk review: the folk music piece hits a bum note


my dear. In this rigid production by Roxana Silbert, Nell Leyshon’s ‘Play with Songs’ on the history of English folk music addresses interesting questions about who owns a nation’s culture with striking evidence. Which is ironic, given that this is a man who allegedly saved the English folk heritage by stripping it of its complexity and nuance.

In 1903, Cecil Sharp began to write, edit and rearrange songs passed down through generations of the rural working class of Somerset. His promotion of this oral lyric tradition fueled the revival of mid-century English classical music, 60s pop and modern folk, and he did similar work on Morris Dancing and Appalachian song. It was also, by everyone’s opinion, a completely wicked and misogynistic job and arguably a cultural looter.

Leyshon, born in Somerset, fabricates a blurred discursive story around four real people, playing quickly and freely with the few facts. Which is and always would be good, if the results were dramatically interesting. Sadly, here Leyshon focuses on a My Fair Lady-like student-teacher relationship between Sharp and the uneducated glove maker Louie (Louisa) Hooper, where the straightforward and initially fearful peasant girl teaches the town a thing or two.

A pragmatic affair between Louie’s sister, Lucy (Sasha Frost) and earthy worker John England (Ben Allen) is there to illustrate the earthly and ephemeral nature of their lives. John’s choice is poverty, a new factory, or emigration. People talk about “the machines taking over” as if it were an offshoot of the Matrix franchise, located in the past and a few miles from Taunton.

Sasha Frost and Mariam Haque in Folk

/ Robert day

Most of the time, however, the piece consists of Simon Robson’s Sharp and Mariam Haque’s Louie discussing the music. Song blooms in her: it fights it to the point of submission. He smirks: she watches, trembling, halfway. He lyrical about books (“amazing objects”), she plays spoons. She is inspired by birds and fields, he by an English ideal. Often, Leyshon plunges us into the twists and turns of contemporary English nationalism.

When Haque sings for the first time – kneeling on a carpet, without accompaniment of course, in a touching tremolo – it is very moving, but also a relief from all the explanations of the author. Leyshon won the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award in 2005 for Outstanding Comfort Me With Apples in Hampstead. Here, his writing is laborious and talkative. When its intended staging was thwarted by Covid, this piece was produced by Radio 3, and it’s tempting to suggest that radio is where it really belongs.

It’s not a total disaster like live theater. For those who aren’t automatically repelled by a piece about folk music, there’s fun to be had in the ideas behind the script and the more subtle moments of Haque and Frost. Their singing is sweet and the classic folk songs that Leyshon weaves together are a treat. But my dear, that’s not how London theater was supposed to start in 2022. This celebration of song hits a bum note.

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