Friday, 21 May 2021

Radio review: Folk

A break from theatre rescued from pandemic obscurity by BBC TV, for some theatre rescued from pandemic obscurity by BBC radio: Folk had been commissioned by Hampstead Theatre and was presumably due to have been staged by now, but instead it gets an audio outing as part of Radio 3's drama strand. Sadly this doesn't feature a spoon-playing nun but it does feature spoon-playing, as like the Tom Wells play of the same name the Folk in Nell Leyshon's play is folk music. It's inspired by the story of the man credited with recording English folk songs for posterity, composer Cecil Sharp (Simon Russell Beale,) and the woman who first inspired him, Louie Hooper (Amanda Lawrence.) Living in rural Somerset with her sister Lucy (Amanda Wilkin,) the two have just buried their mother in 1903 when Sharp arrives to spend a week at a local manor house, and Louie gets volunteered as a housemaid for him to make some extra cash.

Sharp intends his vacation in the country to be an opportunity to compose his own music, but when he hears Louie singing folk songs he asks if he can transcribe them. Louie is a repository of hundreds of songs, and fearing the oral tradition is nearing its end, Sharp wants to record them on the page so they're not lost with her generation. But by the next time he visits he's published the songs under his name and with his arrangements, and Louie feels betrayed. Folk is in a way a play about cultural appropriation, although Sharp would probably view it as his own culture, since it's English music and he's English. Louie has a more earthy way of viewing them, connected to the land that people worked on when they first sang them, and has little truck for national borders and identity.

The play's strongest moments are when Lawrence (who has a good singing voice I don't think we often get to hear on stage) takes us through this connection between songs and land; the central confrontation is pretty underwhelming though, and Leyshon's sympathetic characterisation of Louie can tip into slightly patronising Wise Fool territory. The suggestion that Sharp's obsession with the songs being part of an English identity has a darker political purpose is barely touched on, and although early on SSRB's avuncular performance has a slightly creepy edge in his dealings with Louie, the darker side of him suggested by the show's blurb could certainly have been explored more. With plenty of sound but not that much fury, radio may turn out to have been the best home for this after all.

Folk by Nell Leyshon is available until the 6th of June on BBC Sounds.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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