Getting to see this play on stage has been a long time coming – for me at any rate. Originally commissioned some time ago by Hampstead Theatre, Folk found itself the victim of the pandemic and was produced as a Radio 3 audio drama (which I reviewed here) before finally making it back to full production last winter. I was due to see it then but once again Mr Covid intervened. Hailed as a huge success, but only running in the smaller of their two auditoria, I was unable to secure a replacement seat in the short time it had left to run. Now it’s on its second full run – just as the pandemic rears its ugly head again – so time to get in quick. Perhaps slightly perversely Hampstead are again running the production in their Downstairs studio; getting hold of tickets, while not impossible, is once again tricky – most performances are showing “sold out” on their website. Given the long wait for many, might it have not made more sense to transfer the play upstairs? Be that as it may it remains a compelling drama about an interesting subject though – my turn to be perverse – I preferred the audio version which seemed to me to be more tightly scripted and benefitted from the dulcet tones of Simon Russell Beale as catalyst figure Cecil Sharp.
Sharp is a London music school (sorry, conservatoire) principal who takes himself off to Somerset in 1903 to get some peace and quiet and get on with some serious composing which he feels is his real calling. He stays in a small village where he encounters two sisters, Louie and Lucy Hooper, who have been brought up in the oral tradition learning songs that have been passed down through generations. Louie particularly has an affinity for the songs and probably knows over 300. Sharp wants to save them for posterity by gathering them together and writing them down. There follows an interestingly dramatized debate about how doing so will change them forever, removing them from the tradition in which they were constructed and altering them irreparably. The songs will become better known and live on but at the cost of removing them from their immediate environment and taking away the very thing which makes them special. Neither is it entirely clear whether Sharp’s motives are altruistic or whether he is just a seeker after fame; in essence it becomes a play about a very modern subject, that of cultural appropriation.
While the radio drama seemed to focus more on Sharp – and with SRB in the role how could it not do? – this version very much foregrounds Louie played here by Mariam Haque. She’s a subtle still presence throughout the play but exudes a steely determination when explaining to Sharp just why he is wrong; there’s a particularly moving speech towards the end of Act 2. As Sharp, Simon Robson both looks and sounds the part and is generous enough to let the character of Louie shine. There’s more than a hint of the Eliza/Higgins relationship going on here and as with Shaw’s play tensions ultimately remain unresolved. Sasha Frost is also excellent as the more determined but ultimately equally disappointed Lucy and Ben Allen completes a strong quartet as villager John England. I thought this was rather a clumsily obvious name to make some telling points with but, as I can now see from the programme, he really did exist so my apologies to Leyshon for making unwarranted assumptions.
Woven through the narrative are several examples of the music which Sharp collected – sometimes complete songs and sometimes just extracts. They are generally sung without accompaniment – musical director Gary Yershon wisely lets the songs speak for themselves. They invoke the Somerset settings in which the action takes place and the moments when the two sisters’ duet and tie the songs to features of their immediate landscape are particularly evocative of a time when most people never left their own environments. Roxanna Silbert’s direction is suitably unfussy which mostly lets the dialogue and songs speak for themselves. Matt Haskins’ beautifully delicate lighting is the star turn of the creative team.
As already declared, with its emphasis on sound I did prefer the audio version, though Haque was more than worthwhile catching. Unfortunately, the recording is no longer available so if you want to experience the play you’re going to have to get on the website at regular intervals and see what returns have come in. That said, I wouldn’t mind betting that this is a play that will resurface – like the songs it foregrounds, it is a piece which will endure.