At first glance, ‘Folk’ is a charming, uplifting play with plenty of folk music that will have you smiling and maybe even tapping a toe, but beneath the sweet Somerset lilt, is a dark story.
Set in 1903 in the Somerset Levels we meet two sisters, Louie Hooper (Hannah Traylen) and Lucy White (Gemma Sutton) who have just buried their mother. Life is hard. The machines are coming and they cannot sew gloves fast enough to keep their heads above water. The work songs passed down from their mother keep them working, the melodies express their love for the local environment and appreciation of nature.
Enter Cecil Sharp (William Oxborrow), a wannabe English composer from London. He wants to collect local folk songs to preserve them for history – and for the national good. He convinces Louie to share her mother’s songs, but when she does, the outcome is not what she expected.
Herein lies the beauty and skill of Nell Leyshon’s writing. The big Issues of cultural appropriation, exploitation, sexism, classism, intellectualism, localism, patriotism, copyright ownership and more are scattered as beats for you to see, but not shoved in your face.
In between the musical prose, the audience cannot help but ponder if culture can – and should be – pinned down? The question of preservation looms large, but it’s interesting to question who preserves, and what version, and what point of view is being preserved for future generations? And can local songs be owned? Like common land that becomes private, can common songs be owned by a private individual? And if the common songs of the common man become privately owned, what becomes of the common good?
History is likely on Cecil Sharp’s side, the songs he collected are still in existence now. He preserved the songs of yesteryear for today, but ‘Folk’ asks us to question, how and what he preserved, and was it as the locals had intended?
‘Folk’ is a very different proposition for Frinton Summer Theatre. Having only been seen before at Hampstead Theatre, Clive Brill has brought to life a production that deserves a wider audience. With Harwich close by, perhaps local people may reflect on the commercialisation of sea shanties and how heritage can be leveraged for private profit.
‘Folk’ is a must-see production. Not only is it littered with beautiful songs that will have you trilling all the way home, but it enlightens us about history and asks us to ask important questions about who creates it. https://www.frintonsummertheatre.org/box-office
Reviewer: Samantha Collett
Reviewed: 25th July 2023
North West End UK Rating: