Folk at Hampstead Theatre: Cecil Sharp collects songs from Somerset singers ***
- Credit: Robert Day
The story of how folk revival pioneer Cecil Sharp collected songs from rural peasants, then 'tidied' them up to be performed in churches, schools and drawing rooms is overdue for reappraisal.
Told by Somerset playwright Nell Leyshon through the eyes of singers Louie and Lucy Hooper, it's a tale of cultural appropriation, class condescension and downright thievery. But instead of letting Sharp and his Hampstead music snobs have it, Leyshon paints a nuanced picture of a talented outsider artist - sensitive, febrile illiterate Louis (Mariam Haque) bonding with the boisterously benign song collector over a mutual love of music.
The best scenes in Leyshon's elegiac drama see Sharp (Simon Robson) showing Louie musical notation and how Norwegian folk tunes inspired Grieg - while she teaches him how songs reflect the landscape and seasons as she helps him find the right chord for rising sap.
It's 1903 and Sharp is on an almost spiritual quest for a pure Englishness to counter all those foreign composers - preserving Louis' songs before they disappear will help schoolchildren learn their "musical heritage".
But she points out that like the changing landscape and the tunes passed from singer to singer, his notion of England cannot be pinned down.
Countries she tells him are "just the bit of land where we was born.. England ain't no better than any other country."
An underwritten side story sees tough older sister Lucy abandoned by a lover who is stifled by the limitations of rural working class life, as Leyshon circles back to the sisters' grief for their mother who taught them the songs - and how singing them is an act of remembrance and love.
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While folk songs such as Seeds of Love, Lord Rendal and The Trees They Do Grow High are beautifully woven into the story, Roxana Silbert's slow paced production could do with more movement. And knocking the edges off the rigid, misogynistic Sharp - recasting him as a self-aware softie - feels like a missed opportunity for some dramatic grit and character complexity.