FOLK, Ensemble Theatre, 8 May-1 June 2019. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above - Libby Asciak; below - Genevieve Lemon, Libby Asciak and Gerard Carroll; below again - Asciak and Carroll
Tom Wells is a young English playwright – from a small seaside town in Yorkshire. The (UK) Guardian reviewer described him 2016 thus: “As a dramatist he is not, and is unlikely ever to be, fashionable; and as a young man who writes about gay themes on the margins of Yorkshire he belongs to a minority within a minority. Yet it is this very sense of being cut adrift that makes his writing remarkable.”
The review was of Folk, a successful co-production between Birmingham Rep, Watford Palace and Hull Truck. Folk isn’t particularly gay – in any sense of the word – but it is very definitely about those who live on the margins. There is an elderly Irish nun, Sister Winnie (Genevieve Lemon) who is about to celebrate her 35th year in the habit, although these days she wears the dowdy civvies that are almost as distinctive as the black and white once was.
She keeps company with, or more accurately, is giving succour and some small joy to Stephen (Gerard Carroll), a closet gay who otherwise lives at home and cares for his father. He is also a bit of a closet folkie – writing songs and playing his guitar, but perish the thought of allowing anyone but Sister Winnie to hear him.
Crashing into these two small lives – quite literally – comes Kayleigh (Libby Asciak), a lost and angry 15-year-old whose mother is dead and whose stepfather is an abusive drunk. Before you can say Blessed St Flahoola, Sister Winnie’s big but angina-blighted heart has softened towards the bolshy petty crim. Then a bit of a sing-along performs further melting work. It takes Stephen rather longer to crack a smile, and it’s clear he’s unknowingly jealous as well as suspicious of the interloper.
Sister Winnie is a blithe spirit however and will hear nothing bad about anybody, except perhaps, the heart specialist who’s told her she can no longer drink Guinness or smoke. She relates this news while taking a good swig of her drink and repairing to the bay window for a smoke.
The plot is wafer-thin and is kept aloft by songs and goodwill. Stephen is grumpily reluctant but Sister Winnie cajoles him to sing and also teach Kayleigh to play the tin whistle – which she instantly does better than he can. No wonder she pisses him off.
An Easter concert is dreamed up by the singing nun – with tombola, sandwiches and all the trimmings – but the best laid plans of mice and nuns are filed away somewhere and the inevitable turns out to be inevitable. Nevertheless, in a production directed by Terence O’Connell, there is gentle laughter and much whimsy along the way and, although no stone is kissed in the making of the play, there’s an awful lot of Blarney going on. The style of humour is signalled in the opening moments when Winnie asks Stephen, “Sing me something holy – something wholly inappropriate.”
Folk is undemanding and kind-hearted and its three mismatched characters are wryly observed. Running rather longer than its scheduled 90 minutes, it seemed, on opening night, almost lackadaisical; lines were muffed and it had the feel of a show that needs a bit of spit and polish to achieve the goal of lightness and sparkle.
Genevieve Lemon is the mistress of these larger than life characters – although Winnie gives her little other than a couple of Irish formulas to work with. (Anyone who saw her rip the heart out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as Martha to Darren Gilshenan’s George will remember how extraordinary it was to see two fine actors playing against the type they’re usually lumbered with.)
Gerard Carroll is lucked with a less obvious character in the shy man whose shell is – almost – impossible to crack. He also plays a sweet guitar and, together with Lemon and newcomer Asciak, the song sequences are charming.
The revelation of the play – in which there are otherwise no revelations – is Libby Asciak. She imbues the nonchalantly unhappy teenager with colour and credibility and her gradual unfurling, from tightly-wound aggression to glimpses of a blossoming sense of possibility, are properly poignant.
Hugh O’Connor’s set and costumes are as comfortable and familiar as a pair of much-loved slippers. On the other hand, Trent Suidgeest’s lighting is imaginative, varied, apposite and adds a subtle fourth character to the occasion. If you want a bit of a rest from the hurly-burly of Sydney in election mode, with an occasional chuckle and lump in your throat – Folk is for you.