Theatre review: Folk, Birmingham Rep

Photo: Graeme Braidwood

John Kennedy gives his verdict on the latest play from award-winning writer Tom Wells.

Tom Wells’ contemporary bittersweet sit-dom melodrama is a gentle and unashamedly sentimental homage to the timeless, cathartic healing grace of music and song. Not so much tugging at the heartstrings as wrapping them up in knots and inextricably binding them to the protagonists’ fate.

The three disparate characters in this comedy of life’s error-strewn passage form tentative friendships driven by an unspoken mutuality of loneliness that finds expression by proxy in their shared love of Irish folk songs. Each, we will learn, has a secret to be told.

Set in Sister Winifred’s (Connie Walker) 50/60s time-capsule living room, designer Bob Bailey’s set is bedecked with Catholic iconography, of which a regular can of Guinness is Winnie’s holy water by proxy – her interpretation of holy orders seemingly out of order, swearing like a trooper, never far from a fag.

Set over five consecutive Friday evenings, the gentle, chronically-shy and self-effacing Stephen (Patrick Bridgman) will bring a brace of the Liffey elixir and they’ll ease themselves into a bashful Irish folk song or two.

The impending elephant in the room is the teenage Kayleigh (Chloe Harris). Preferring an introductory house brick through the window, she literally and figuratively brings a breath of much-needed fresh air.

Much to Stephen’s understandable ire, Winnie’s faith and hope are matched by her charity, as she is the one to beg Kayleigh’s forgiveness for not realising her desperate situation – obnoxious stepfather, no job, just returned from a so-called friend’s funeral. More revelations follow. Kayleigh’s fascination with Stephen’s homemade painted penny whistles sees her pick up a tune in no time, and thus begins the fledgling folk trio Winnie later christens The Shenanigans. Much to Stephen’s horror, she has plans for an Easter church-hall show called What The Folk. What unravels from thence on would be plot carnage, and we’ll have no spoilers here.

The cast sing and play with rustic sincerity. Composer James Frewer’s economic and sympathetic interpretations of traditional Irish ballads, airs and jigs eschew any theme-pub contrivance or what the late Pete McCarthy wryly dismissed as paddywackery. The scene transition music is atmospheric – and mercifully Enya-free.

Tessa Walker’s direction is commendably permissive and naturalistic by stealth, the art of being very noticeably not in the way. Tom Wells has clearly drawn on childhood experience, and this play is an affectionate reminder of where the true origins of the appellation “folk” began – ordinary people’s music made extraordinary. After all, the first simple flute pipes were fashioned from recycled ancestors’ arm bones.

Audiences can draw whatever unlaboured universal truths they wish from this well-crafted and highly-satisfying production. Some might see the characters as an alt-humanist, wholly-believable trinity. Theirs an everyman’s magi journey seeking a guiding star to pin a wish on? Possibly.

Folk runs at the Birmingham Rep until April 30. For more information, visit http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/event/folk/.

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