Folk, Birmingham Rep

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Music gives lives meaning. It gathers communities; marks the rituals of births, marriages and deaths; soundtracks moments of happiness and heartache. A song can be a solace or a spur, a souvenir or a scar.

For the trio of characters in Folk, it’s the music of the title that lends significance to these individuals’ ordinary existences. Tom Wells’s play is, in many ways, a classic story of unlikely friendships. At its centre is Winnie, a gleefully singing, swearing and smoking nun, whose enthusiastic knowledge of the saints is only matched by her love for a good jig. On Friday nights, she’s joined for a sing-song and a pint of Guinness by her quiet best friend Stephen, a man who never quite got the hang of life. Where Winnie is all vivacity, Stephen is all reserve.

Lobbed into their lives like the brick she sends smashing through Winnie’s window, teenager Kayleigh is the improbable third member of their makeshift folk group. Unfolding over a series of their Friday evening jam sessions, the play slowly envelops us in these people’s lives. Bit by bit, Kayleigh opens up about her problems and worries, while Winnie and Stephen strive to conceal theirs. The supposed goal is an Easter Folk Night at the local church, thrust by Winnie upon a reluctant Stephen and Kayleigh, but really it’s the friendships between the three characters that are gradually built up through their playing and singing.

And that’s it. Folk is a slight little thing, its ambitions as modest as those of its characters, yet it’s sort of exquisite in its own tender, unassuming way. It gives the same measured, compassionate attention to unremarkable people and unremarkable lives as Barney Norris’s gentle, muted Eventide or the plays of Robert Holman. Like the writers of folk songs, Wells has an ear for the everyday rhythms of small joys and sadnesses. These things deserve to be sung about too, he seems to be saying.

In terms of plot, it’s easy enough to see where everything is headed, but at heart this is a piece that’s more about character than it is about story. The attention of Tessa Walker’s unshowy production is likewise firmly fixed on the people at its centre. Bob Bailey’s bare frame of a set, filled with the cosy religious paraphernalia of Winnie’s life, is a scaffold for these lives to hang on, while Walker’s direction creates vital breathing space in which the characters can discover one another. Silence and song say as much as words.

As the irrepressible Winnie, Connie Walker vibrates with constant energy. Even when sat down talking, her legs jitter to an inner beat, and when the music starts up she’s instantly transformed, leaping into jigs that are exhausting just to watch. It’s no wonder weary exasperation seems to radiate in waves from Patrick Bridgman’s Stephen. But there’s warmth and care, too, in her uncompromising, non-stop approach to life. Those sentiments are infectious, thawing gruffly protective Stephen’s initially frosty attitude towards Kayleigh and visibly softening the brittle, seemingly self-sufficient exterior of Chloe Harris’s confused teenager. As they play music together, the distance between these three very different people simply slides away.

Folk music is, as Kayleigh puts it, “centuries of troubles and struggles and not-to-worrys”; it’s tunes that lodge in the head like “little ribbons, half-remembered”. In Wells’s play, those songs become tools for living, at the same time as sounding an empathetic ode to lives half-lived and the stories that are so often left untold.

Photo: Graeme Braidwood.

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