Folk, review: ‘this wonderful play deserves to endure’

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In a cracking start to the theatregoing year, Hampstead’s studio space offers a spellbinding account of Cecil Sharp at the start of his invaluable quest to preserve English folk songs but handling them and their rustic, often female repositories with a mixture of reverence and calculation.

Nell Leyshon, a novelist as well as a playwright, hails from Somerset. And it’s to the Somerset village of Hambridge, circa 1903, that she wings us in a piece originally aired on Radio 3.

Sharp, then principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music, had come to visit the village curate, Charles Marson. It was in Hambridge, courtesy of Marson’s gardener, John England, that he first heard an old song that was new to him, Seeds of Love. He set it down, thereafter roving the locality to capture hundreds more for posterity. That process is distilled via his encounters with song treasure-troves Louie Hooper and her half-sister Lucy White.

In Leyshon’s fictional spin on researched events, Lucy is the more suspicious of the two, while Louie initially shifts from shy taciturnity to trust, as she finds an enthusiast for the songs she imbibed from her newly deceased mother.

When the relative feebleness of Sharp’s own music and rapacity of his approach – publishing songs without consent, finessing and bowdlerising them too – becomes clearer, she withdraws into resentful recrimination. 

By increments, Leyshon orchestrates a gripping philosophical tussle over the soul of England: the urbanised interloper embodying a high-minded but stultifying nationalism and conformism, the rural labourer an untutored, instinctive freedom of spirit that resists compartmentalisations of music and mindset.

Leyshon pulls off the considerable feat of showing us how indebted we are to Sharp, while suggesting that his under-sung helpers in the field had a more sophisticated sense of why the songs mattered. 

Leyshon’s poetic way with words, the subtle modulations of Roxana Silbert’s scenically humble production and the superb, lived-in detail of the four actors hold us in thrall.

Mariam Haque flowers from shifty diffidence into pained defiance as Louie, Sasha Frost’s Lucy moves from taunting disdain to emergent, teary tenderness and Simon Robson is spot-on as Sharp, combining a blithe entitlement with beady engagement. 

Ben Allen completes the acting quartet as John England, nicely tilting between dependability and disreputability. Like the folk songs it so delights in, the play deserves to endure. Still, you never know, best catch it while you can.


Until Feb 5. Tickets: 020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com

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