FOLK Hampstead Theatre, NW3

SONGS FROM THE LAND

      There’s a lovely serendipity here.  The main theatre is running PEGGY FOR YOU  (till 29th)  while the little downstairs space has Nell Leyshon’s rather lovely new play imagining Cecil Sharp collecting folk-songs in Somerset.   Both are about mentor-midwives to artists,  and artists who in return may be both appreciative and resentful.   Upstairs there’s Peggy Ramsay, not herself a creative but a devoted playwrights’ agent;   downstairs there’s an Edwardian musicologist,  wishing he was a better composer himself  as he collects and rearranges “the true song of England” from rustics. 

       Sharp felt that England had since Purcell’s day fallen behind the Germans, who insultingly called us “das land ohne musik” (land without music).   Explaining himself to the cottager-maidservant Louisa Hooper he fulminates “Scotland has her songs. Ireland has nothing but song. Wales even has songs!  But England…” . 

        “They’re wrong”  says Louie boldly. “We got songs”.   And that’s the answer Sharp has come for:  something he sees as pure and English “before the machines take over and before it all goes”.   She sings to him,  one of the hundreds of songs she got from her newly dead mother.  And yes, the hairs stand up on your neck,   especially if you recognize “Lord Randal”. Because it’s  best known as an Anglo-Scottish border ballad,  and then as a borrowing by Bob Dylan.  That’s a clever choice, since it reminds us early on that for all Sharp’s anxieties about Englishness the magical thing is  the glorious, wandering, gipsy freedom of all these songs. They cross borders and oceans.   He was right to collect them in versions passed by voice and ear, to cherish and write them down as black-dots on staves.  But he was  wrong, some say, to take lordly ownership of the old songs, to fossilize and rearrange them for trained metropolitan concert artists. That argument still goes on in your local folk club.  It needs to. 

          Joyfully,  Nell Leyshon’s artful script takes in these divisive perspectives on the legacy Cecil Sharp as Louie Hooper, the poor cottage outworker with hands sore from glove-making,  repeatedly pulls him up short.  First when – though astonished  and thrilled by  her first hearing of the vicar’s “pianoforte” –  she asks incredulously   “Can you have a JOB doing music?”.    Later she spurns his arrangement of one of the songs she has sung him  with   “I can’t hear my mother. It’s rigid, it’s tidy, there’s nothing of the wild”.   And again “You pin it down so tight!”.  “I tidied it”  he protests, a bit hurt at her lack of admiration.  Scornful looks.   This is no malleable figure for a Pygmalion:  Louie knows who she is, what her home is, and the value of the deep untidy belly-feelings her mother’s songs evoke. 

      Sharp admits that her illiteracy has been his gain, because  “if you could write you wouldn’t remember so many songs”.    Subversively,  though, this daughter of the years  before free elementary education teaches him how to sing a whole scene properly, the old way,  moving your heart from field to field and flower to flower:  he stands abashed.   But he knows and we know, that a new century is breaking,  and life  must and will change.  Louie knows it too,  rejecting sentimental fossilization of songs and ideas.   “Nothing stands still” she says flatly.  The changing countryside, the very drainage scheme of the Somerset Levels, has taught her that. 

         The songs Leyshon uses – heartbreaking, familiar now,  with their trees that grow high and grass that grows green, sad graves and loves lost and maidens chased into the bushes – were collected from various people  including the real and well-documented Louisa Hooper.  But there’s a truthful dramatic core to the whole venture in the play’s narrow focus:  an imaginative light shone on this warily friendly relationship between a slightly arrogant musical academic and a cottage girl who sings from heart and memory and love. 

     Mariam Haque is a wonderfully moving Louie,  bringing the part shyness and defiance,  a noble straightforwardness both in song and argument.    Simon Robson catches the way Sharp’s academic arrogance is softened by a real hunger for human understanding which enabled him to listen properly to the peasant or gipsy voices his class often ignored.    Louie’s half-sister Lucy, sometimes singing alongside her and  suffering her own loss of love is Sasha Frost,  vigorously down-to-earth in contrast.   Ben Allen’s restless rustic John,  keen to escape the stinking leatherworks for a life in Canada, completes the foursome.

      The set is simple, cottage to vicarage marked  by lights rising gently on tapestries and piano as the women’s workstations are spirited away.  Roxana Silbert’s direction is gentle, unhurried, respectful.  As indeed it was in RAYA,  another recent jewel in Hampstead’s downstairs.  Come to think of it, it’s the third in a row under this Artistic Director which has made it sing to the heart ;   there was also Tom Wells’ BIG BIG SKY.  Tiny no-tech space , three new plays mid-pandemic, new shakings of the heart and thoughts for the head.   Respect.  Get this play on the road this spring, someone.

box office www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to 5 Feb.   

rating four 

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