Folk at Hampstead Theatre – review

The show has its world premiere in north London

Sasha Frost and Mariam Haque
Sasha Frost and Mariam Haque
© Robert Day

We're not even a full week into 2022 and already Hampstead is setting the bar for new writing impressively high with this little beauty. Author Nell Leyshon has form with creating quietly riveting rural dramas (her Glass Eels and Comfort Me With Apples both premiered at this address, the latter garnering her the Evening Standard award for Most Promising Playwright of 2005) but Folk is likely to prove a significant career highlight, both for her and several of her collaborators here.

Inspired by real-life events – musician and composer Cecil Sharp collected traditional folk songs from the working people of areas like south Somerset, where this play is set, and compiled them into a seminal anthology without crediting his sources – it transcends historical ‘faction' into something rich and far-reaching. Leyshon centres her narrative on another real person, partially disabled seamstress Louie Hooper (a stupendous performance from Mariam Haque) who learnt countless folk songs at her mother's knee and is possessed of a remarkable ability to access and interpret them at will.

We first encounter Hooper and her sister Lucy (Sasha Frost, absolutely wonderful) bickering after their late mother's wake, and the differences between the siblings are pronounced but plausible: Lucy is a fun-loving extrovert while Louie is saturnine and watchful, unsettled by having just spent her first night at home alone. When Louie is first drafted into the domestic job that will introduce her to visiting urbanite Sharp, her discomfort and panic is palpable.

Sharp quickly realises that he has hit pay dirt with Louie's innate, unrefined musical talent, and director Roxana Silbert has similarly struck gold in the casting of this unconventional heroine: Haque is extraordinary, suggesting Hooper's bruised soul and untutored brilliance before thrillingly, credibly charting her progress from barely articulate to a state of authentic power, tempered with bewilderment at what Sharp now wants from her once he has published a portion of the songs that course through her like blood. Crucially, neither she nor Leyshon's frequently breathtaking writing –poetic yet muscular – ever patronise or comment on this complex but unworldly young woman. It'll be a long time before I forget Haque's spellbinding second act deconstruction of the folk song Sharp has homogenised for wider consumption, as she makes explicit the inextricable connection between the lyric and the landscape whence it was conceived. She's heartbreaking but never sentimental, which is equally true of the play and production.

Silbert's fleet, flawless staging features strong work from Ben Allen as a local lad who comes between the sisters, and Simon Robson captures the intriguing ambiguities of Sharp, his admiration for Louie ultimately eclipsed by his determination to make his own name on the back of her, and her ilk's, legacy. Gary Yershon's musical contribution is invaluable.

Folk is about so much more than musical tradition though: it's s a meditation on grief, on family legacy, on nationalism, the importance of understanding where you've come from, and how a manifold, rewarding inner life is ultimately preferable to surface acclaim and financial gain. All this is distilled down, like a potent but sweet spirit, into something profoundly moving and satisfying. It's also about how music and words can seep into your soul, as does this exquisite new play. Like the music that inspired it, Folk deserves to be around for a very long time.