Nell Leyshon
Hampstead Theatre for Radio Three

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Folk Credit: BBC

Folk music goes from strength to strength and therefore those who are not historians of the subject might be surprised to discover that, but for the efforts of one man over a century ago, the art form could have disappeared without trace.

Cecil Sharp co-founded the English Song and Folk Dance Society and set out in 1903 on what must sometimes have felt like a solo mission to rediscover and revive the music of the past. In some ways, his work mirrored that of anthropologists and linguists desperately trying to save and revivify cultures and languages in danger of extinction.

Folk is a radio drama set in rural Somerset and is appropriately broadcast on music station Radio Three (as well as BBC Sounds), which spreads its brief rather more widely than classical music, keenly embracing jazz and folk.

Without wishing to reduce the appeal of playwright Nell Leyshon and co-stars Amanda Lawrence and Amanda Wilkin, the initial attraction for many who have been deprived of the pleasure of enjoying his company on stage for the last year is the casting of Simon Russell Beale as Sharp. With his mellifluous tones and perfect understanding of character, Russell Beale is the kind of man who could make the dullest stick worth listening to and, despite initial prejudices, the eccentric but strong-willed Sharp is far from that.

On arrival in Somerset, the musician and musicologist was lucky enough to meet Louie Hooper, a crippled, illiterate country girl in mourning following the recent loss of her mother but also someone sharing with him the love of song, reputedly storing 300 otherwise forgotten folk songs in her head.

Working as a glove maker alongside Amanda Wilkin as her livelier sister Lucy at a time when machinery was threatening to take away their livelihoods, Amanda Lawrence’s character was deputed to skivvy at the local vicarage, where Sharp was to be billeted. Shy, unworldly Louie and city slicker Cecil seem like an unlikely combination but, while having little else in common, they shared a unique love of music.

Around their meetings, Nell Leyshon works hard to introduce a series of themes that turn this into far more than merely the story of a Londoner heading for the countryside and “stealing” the oral inheritance of dim yokels.

Many listeners might struggle to decide which side they wish to take in a debate about whether the songs of the country belong to that tradition or should be widely shared via books (and now recordings) as part of what it means to be English.

In passing, the harsh lives led by rural women at the beginning of the 20th century are also given due attention, primarily through the unfeeling behaviour of Lucy’s beau, John England, (now there’s a name) played by Stuart McLoughlin.

Susan Roberts directs an 80-minute-long production for Hampstead Theatre that greatly benefits from the efforts of musical director Gary Yershon, who peppers the story with compositions on the piano but also a wide selection of songs, beautifully sung by the leading trio of actors.

Folk might be a quiet, unassuming play but it is charming and insightful, as well as giving listeners a chance to enjoy those songs and excellent performances all round.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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