Review: Folk, at Hampstead Theatre

Enthralling play explores contentious issue of Cecil Sharp’s contribution to English folk music

Thursday, 13th January — By Lucy Popescu

Folk Production Image 2 featuring SIMON ROBSON MARIAM HAQUE © Robert Day

Simon Robson and Mariam Haque in Folk. Photo: Robert Day

CECIL Sharp was a controversial figure. A composer and principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music, Sharp’s collecting of English folk songs under his own name could be seen as cultural appropriation.

Nell Leyshon’s enthralling play explores how Sharp (Simon Robson) took credit for setting down the music without duly acknowledging those who had shared their knowledge or the songs’ true origins. However, his work undoubtedly led to a widespread interest in English folk music and their preservation.

Folk opens in 1903 with Sharp’s visit to Somerset. Louie (Mariam Haque) and Lucy (Sasha Frost) are sisters and glovemakers. When Louie accepts work as a maid in the local vicarage, she meets Sharp and they discover a shared love of music.

Louie is grieving the recent loss of her mother but Sharp persuades her to sing some of the beloved songs that have been handed down through her family.

Sasha Frost and Mariam Haque

Sharp suggests folk songs are at the core of a country. For Louie they are at the heart of herself.

When he transcribes the songs Louie has shared with him and smugly presents her with a written edition, she tells him he’s “pinned them down so tight, there’s no room for them to breathe”.

Louie reveals her mother was a gypsy and that the songs she knows reflect the rural landscape they’ve always roamed. In a memorable scene she demonstrates to Sharp that the time it takes to walk over a field denotes how many trills or repeated verses there are in a song – something that Sharp has missed entirely.

As well as a joyful play about the history of English folk songs, Folk is a poignant meditation on grief, while the subplot between Lucy and her lover John (Ben Allen) reflects on the rural poverty of the time.

Roxana Silbert’s sublime production is pitch-perfect – Haque, in particular, is spine-tingling good.

Her exquisite voice matches her astonishing performance.

Until February 5
hampsteadtheatre.com

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