Folk – Hampstead Theatre

Folk - Hampstead Theatre (by Robert Day)

Hampstead Theatre is first out of the gates once again in 2022 with its new piece Folk, a smart two hour story about composition and the appropriation of music by those wanting to capture a truly English sound. With its interest in identity, ownership, tradition and the ‘rules’ applied to written rather than oral forms, Nell Leyshon’s play, which aired on Radio 3 in 2021, now earns a fully staged run in the smaller downstairs space at the Hampstead Theatre, offering an insightful consideration of artistic integrity and music styles.

Plays about music tend to focus on two things – novelty of form brought about usually through the arrival of a particular or radical individual, and rivalry in which singers or bands compete with one another for Number 1s or top billing. Some like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus do both, charting the disruptive effect of Mozart’s composition told through bitter rivalry with Salieri who tries to destroy his genius.

But most of the work about the creation and dissemination of songs tends to happen through musical theatre and largely in tales of twentieth-century American bands overcoming personal strife as they make their way from tour group to TV sensation. And shows like The Jersey Boys, The Drifter’s Girl, Sunny Afternoon and recent addition Get Up, Stand Up follow this trend. Folk, then, is a different kind of show altogether in not exploring the development of new songs or singers but in the presentation of a pre-existing collection of common melodies handed between the generations and connecting past and future through stories of individuals and landscapes.

Leyshon’s play has several dimensions; set in 1903, it looks at contrasts between rural communities and self-styled urban elites, between ordered, industrial forms and free, creative or instinctual styles as well as class, gender, economic and educational divides. Focused on just four characters, the action revolves around two glove-making sisters in Somerset recovering from the recent death of their mother and the men they encounter as different attitudes, opportunities and turn-of-the-century mores collide through the performance of and discussions about the appropriation of folk music.

Based on real people and to an extent real circumstances, Leyshon imagines the conversations between Cecil Sharp, a London-based teacher and composer, and Louie Hooper, a glovemaker turned parlour maid who is convinced to share the songs her mother taught her as Sharp looks to be the first person to capture England’s folk songs in printed form. Although it is staged as a dramatic narrative in two Acts, the play is filled with the very songs Sharp ensnared and there is a central debate about Sharpe’s actions and the extend to which he betrayed Louie and the people like her.

Did Sharp ‘steal’ their music and then sell it with his name on the cover or did Sharp play a more positive role in capturing what he describes in the play as a ‘dying’ form, threatened by industrialisation and the urbanisation of manual occupations? So through the conversations with Louie, Leyshon is asking some quite challenging questions about the imposition of socially-engineered rules for music which becomes a scientific need to record, analyse and distribute that clashes with the more Romantic notions of free, evolving creativity.

The provenance of the folk songs that Sharp hears in the play becomes fiercely contested. To Louie, suffering from a deep and abiding grief for a lost parent, these are the last remnants of the mother who taught them to her and although she has the freedom to change them, Louie possessively thinks of them as her family’s songs. And in them, Leyshon argues, are layers of meaning and geographical specificity that Sharp’s reductive versions can never fully appreciate.

When Louie speaks about the songs as she performs them, they not only hold a personal connection to the home she lives in and the singing that the Hooper family have always done to pass the hours as they work, but they represent a linguistic and pastoral experience that is very much a living thing. In one especially powerful moment, Louie charts the progress of a young woman through several specific fields in the local area, describing the length of the verse and repetition of phrases based on the size of the various meadows and the inclination of the land. What Leyshon creates in these exchanges is a tangible sense of the music’s physicality as well as its energy and shape that can only be truly recited by those who understand and have inherited its meaning.

It leaves Sharp’s role in a complex position – although not an entirely unsympathetic one. While certain of himself and his own skill with musical notation and composition, Leyshon creates this warmer feeling to Sharp, like a man aimlessly running around with a butterfly net trying to pin down an intangible and brilliantly-coloured creature that he cannot begin to understand but is equally incapable of possessing as it wriggles and shifts its way to freedom.

Sharp consequently represents a middle-class desire for order, trying to impose orchestral music regulation by writing folk songs as a series of notes and expressions on a sheet to be played. This is a position that he sticks to, insisting that he has done a greater good in publishing the songs while muddied by the claims of his own ego and desire to be publicly recognised among his peers. How this can be viewed as a betrayal of the people who shared songs with him through Sharp’s failure to grasp the meaning of the songs he published and without crediting their authors is nicely balanced with Sharp’s enthusiasm for the music, his genuine desire to record it for posterity and, crucially, his initial willingness to learn from Louie, adapting his record with her advice.

What emerges in the early part of Folk is a reverse Henry Higgins scenario as Sharp receives instruction from the young working class woman who spends many hours trying to teach him about these stories. So while Sharp brings a metropolitan sophistication to Somerset with his greater literacy, wider knowledge of orchestral composers and an ability to read and write musical score, it is Louie who grows into a position of power and authority that belies their class divide and the educational barriers between them.

And the play develops a strand that explores the rigid learning from which Sharp seems unable to escape compared with the instinctual knowledge of life, nature and meaning that Louie exemplifies. That Leyshon balances these theoretical debates about the form and function of music with a subplot about the pressure placed on the sisters and a local man to deliver their hand-sewn gloves to targets as their traditional ways of working are being squeezed by the presence of a local factory and its soulless mass production adds to the reality of Folk, giving its Somerset characters a grounding in a lifestyle on the cusp of change with the last group of families whose livelihoods are all but lost to ‘progress’.

That London, by extension, is never seen and only represented by the personality of Sharp or referred to in his Second Act return makes it seem like a mythical place of concerts and parties with music critics and audiences that has very little to do with real life. Leyshon is creating a feeling that the reality of this music rests not in books and cultural gatherings but in the people whose lives both appear in the songs and continue to provide material for future verses. Thereby, Leyshon leaves her audience with the thought that Sharp may not have been entirely in the wrong, although his methods were shoddy, but even having a printed book from 1903 cannot begin to capture the depth, range and meaning of a form of music that defies simplification and through its oral tradition continues to be free.

Mariam Haque as Louie grows in stature as the story unfolds, particularly as she starts to trust her superior understanding of the songs, increasingly emboldened by her certainty about how they should be performed, heard and shared. Leyshon provides just enough backstory for Haque to draw on as the play opens on a young woman whose damaged leg has meant she was more at home with her mother, allowing Louie to become the guardian of these songs. The grief and agoraphobia Haque projects are manifested as frustration; first unwilling to engage with those around her until the music itself draws her out, ready to carry the traditions and honour her mother’s legacy. Haque explores this with considerable empathy for Louie as she becomes more confident in her own voice and her strength of character emerges.

By contrast, Simon Robson’s Cecil Sharp is a city creature expressed in his formal manner and civilised forms of address as well as a consuming acceptance of the established modes of musical expression. There is a touch of superiority in Robson’s Sharp, a belief that Louie should be impressed by his refinement and the seriousness with which he takes her music. His mistake is to assume that her people would want the same things as him, that a publication and acclaim could be the ultimate goal of Louie’s life as well as his. Yet, Robson doesn’t make Sharp a two-dimensional villain and he is both chastised by and amazed by Louie, willing to listen to her and absorb the lessons, sometimes all too aware of his inferiority of subject and personality which detracts from his less worthy qualities, giving the drama its drive.

The supporting storyline between Sasha Frost’s Lucy and Ben Allen’s John is less well developed however, although there are some interesting themes about working class aspiration, the reluctance to take jobs in the local factories and marital limitations in small communities. It is a strand that could be expanded to consider what the future may have in store for the sisters once the menfolk are gone – just as Sharp left these characters behind, so do we.

Directed by Roxana Silbert with a very smart design by Rose Revitt, merging a plain cottage backdrop with beautiful wallpaper that speaks to the content of the songs as well as charmingly sanitised city-based perceptions of the countryside, Folk packs of lot of meaning into its two hour running time. A rare play about music that eschews rivalry and fame for meaning and provenance, Folk has much to say about songs that may speak to a rural experience of England that belongs to the land and its people but can never truly be contained.

Folk is at the Hampstead Theatre until 5 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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