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By Nell Leyshon

Hampstead Theatre 

Until 5 Feb,2022 

Review by Colin Grant


‘Swing low, sweet chariot/ Coming for to carry me home’ rings out from the stands of Twickenham each time England’s rugby team, the players’ patriotic hearts swelling, takes to the pitch with the sound of the unofficial national anthem cresting.

The song, though, is not the epitome of Englishness; it’s a plaintive hymn to freedom written by a nineteenth-century enslaved African American, Wallace Willis, that has been appropriated over the years. Its origins are overlooked or forgotten.

The conflation of a crisis of English national identity, nostalgia and cultural misappropriation is exposed in a beguiling new play by Nell Leyshon with a simple unvarnished title, Folk.

The drama, set in the early 1900s and based on a true story of cultural excavation. Emotionally and intellectually, Folk is driven by the quest of the Cambridge-educated music scholar, Cecil Sharp (Simon Robson), as he travels to Somerset in search of England’s lost peasant folk songs. 

Sharp is a Fabian with a titanic, if patronising, certainty in an idealised notion of working class country folk as the ‘salt of the earth’. In part, his mission is to counter the slur that Germany has levelled at England, referring to it as  ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ (a land without music). He strikes gold in the village of Hambridge with the discovery of an illiterate glovemaker, Louie Hopper, with a vast store of little-known folk songs in her head.

On a spare stage, with just one or two sticks of furniture and an upright piano, the play is suffused with ethereally beautiful songs, conjured by Louie (Mariam Hague) and her sister Lucy (Sasha Frost). The two live a hand-to-mouth existence in a run-down cottage and are grieving for their recently deceased mother from whom they learned to sing and whose memory inspires their harmonies.

Both are tetchy custodians of the songs. But do the songs belong to their mother? Sharp argues that they belong to the nation and gradually teases them out of Louie. Robson evokes both Sharp’s generous enthusiasm for Louie’s singing talent and his self-serving excitement about what the uncovering of the songs might mean for his future ambition as an English composer to match the mastery of Henry Purcell. Sharp’s charm turns to defensiveness when Louie points out his musical shortcomings.

Not so charming is Lucy’s paramour, John England (Ben Allen), a local man whose working life, as a distributor of the sisters’ hand-made gloves, is threatened by the opening of a glove-making factory. John spies that there’s money to be made from the native songs; they shouldn’t just be surrendered to Sharp without remuneration.

The varied and mixed emotions of Folk are rendered through a handful of these songs. At its centre is an extraordinary and heart-rending performance by Mariam Hague. In Louie’s mind the remembrance of her mother is dishonoured by Sharp when he writes down the songs, sets them to piano music and returns to London to publish them.

She accuses Sharp of ‘tidying up’ the songs, reducing them and flattening their nuances so that they can be sung throughout the land. But city folk, like Sharp, will always be unaware of the fluidity of folk songs, of the way a song might change relative to the time of day, the Somerset landscape and vagaries of working life; the songs are a biography of time, place and mood, as well as of the singer.

As far as Louie is concerned Sharp’s intentions are as egregious as attempting to cage a rainbow. Her whole body trembles with the pity of it all, her tearful and furious words catching on her throat, but she will not relent. The soliloquy, movingly performed by Hague, is the most powerful moment in the play.

The glove-maker may be illiterate but Sharp is really an educated fool if he believes that folk songs can be ring-fenced and advanced as a true representation of England. Culture is porous and though there may be geographical borders, demarcating England from Wales and Scotland, the songs cannot and should not be contained. It’s a sentiment that echoes throughout the theatre as a transparent riposte to the celebrants of Brexit Britain.

Finally, the question that the play asks is: who owns the culture? Sharp sees himself as an altruistic evangelical custodian. He has educated Louie as much as she has enlightened him. At one stage he asserts, ‘Exchange is not robbery.’ Louie’s silence is stinging and her criticism all the more damning when she eventually answers him about the imbalance of the exchange,  as her role will be eclipsed: ‘Yes but it’s your name on the book of collected folk songs.’

The argument is unresolved but the irony will not be lost on anyone lucky enough to see this rapturous production: without Sharp’s assiduous work – rescuing and sharing the songs through their transcription – there would be no easily available source material for Leyshon’s tough but tender Folk.

Photo courtesy of Robert Day