Having been grounded in folk singing at Wigan folk clubs, I wondered why men were always singing the songs (except for me). Now I find from this play that it was in fact the women who were behind the tradition of passing down the folk songs we know today. Cecil Sharp is often lauded as the hero of the English folk revival having toured the countryside at the dawn of the 20th Century colleting the songs of the common folk and by doing that saved them. But playwright Nell Leyshon gives a more nuanced view in Folk, centring on one of the women whose songs he transcribed and her relationship with music.

The play opens on a set of oranges and greens depicting meadows and deer reflecting nature and the countryside which inspired the folk music tradition. We are straight away thrown into conflict as two sisters bicker and struggle to continue with their glove-making business after the death of their beloved mother.

Part of the joy of this Olivier-nominated play is the patrician Sharp’s slow realisation that the illiterate glover Louie Hooper has a finer, literally more attuned sense of music than all his classical training gave him. Sharp approaches his quest like a butterfly collector, not thinking that his subjects have anything to contribute.  ‘I’m going to empty you out of songs’ he tells Louie, expecting her to be pleased.  In a more sinister demonstration of class superiority, he exalts in one of her songs, ‘nobody knew it existed, what an incredible thing I have discovered.’

Mariam Haque gives a stand-out performance, with a notably fine voice, as the crippled Louie who is based on a woman of Hambridge who sang songs for Sharp. A none too subtle sub-plot centres on Louie’s cottage where her sister, played by Sasha Frost, is used by a man, Ben Allen, who takes what he wants from the women then leaves, in a reflection of what Sharp does on his travels collecting songs.

Sharp is played by Simon Robson with impressive dexterity on the piano.  His aim is to produce a great English composition based on the nation’s folk songs as Grieg had in Norway.  Louie has no ambition but to keep alive the songs her mother taught her and in doing that maintain her connection with her mother and the land. Sharp’s academic musical training has Louie in awe until they both realise that what she has cannot be encompassed by his writing and compositional skills.

What remains of the encounter is Sharp’s book of songs, issued under his own name with no attribution to the women who provided him with the songs.  He has them performed at his conservatory in London with a woman in a green ball gown singing the part of Louie.  Now they are available for everyone, but no longer belong to Louie.

Leyshon’s thoughtful but enjoyable play does not offer a solution to the balance of natural and academic music, but poses the question in a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music, dance and drama that the originals of Sharp’s subjects would have enjoyed.