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After two years in chic Paris I am thoroughly enjoying my return to London. The everyday joys of home and the familiarity of Greenwich contribute in a large part to this enjoyment, as do the quirky juxtapositions and incongruous mix of scenes and characters that turn my life into a veritable kaleidoscope. And this week’s “artist’s date” provided another odd but strangely pleasing vignette.

The South Bank has long been one of my favourite places for music, theatre and people watching. Whilst I like to sit on the terrace of the Southbank Centre in the summer sipping coffee and watching the bustle of people along the Thames, during the dark winter months I often retreat into the National Theatre or the Royal Festival Hall to enjoy the colour and murmur of the pre-theatre/pre-concert goers or to catch a free performance in the foyer. And on Tuesday 6 February, the National Theatre treated visitors to a session by The Askew Sisters, a delightful English folk music duo.

Thanks to the bright lights and modernist sofas (in greens and oranges so bright they could have escaped from a child’s paint box) the cold winter night seemed miles away. And shortly after the musical siblings had launched into their first dance tunes I could almost imagine myself in the West Country on a summer’s day or at a county town dance, the like of which Jane Austen’s heroines enjoyed all too infrequently.

The Askew Sisters*

As Hazel on melodeon and Emily on fiddle treated us to a mix of songs, ballads, polkas and jigs – some dating back as far as 1651 – I enjoyed the sisters’ infectious music and Hannah’s rich voice against the backdrop of the concrete brutalism of the National Theatre.

Although built three centuries after the earliest of their songs in a style that could not have been conceived by Cromwell or his contemporaries, the National Theatre was in many ways an appropriate setting for The Askew Sisters’ repertoire. Apart from the foot-tapping nature of the music, songs like The Turtle Dove, If I was a Blackbird and The Bonny Bows of London Town are wonderfully captivating stories, as haunting, intriguing or engaging as the plays that are performed in the halls of the National Theatre today.

And just as the bard, whose The Comedy of Errors was being performed that evening, could beguile his diverse Tudor audience, so too could the sisters’ joyous performance of traditional English music cheer the spirit of folk fans and theatre goers alike as well as those just passing the time in the warmth of the concrete edifice.

The gentleman next to me, taking a break from his grocery shopping, was beating out the rhythm of a polka with his foot. Opposite him, a lady did the crossword in the evening paper whilst swaying her shoulders to the music. A simple soul, sitting on the edge of the stage, obviously enjoyed himself as he conducted an imaginary band. Slightly out of sight, the trendy young things with their MacBooks and iPads were tapping their booted toes as they sipped café lattes from tall white mugs. And by the end of the show a woman merrily danced in front of the stage, doing an English interpretation of the sirtaki.

Folk music, like the design of the National Theatre, may not be to everybody’s taste, but the incongruous democratic mix of the evening was not lost on this lover of drama, architecture and traditional music. And no doubt it would also have resonated with the play writers, storytellers and singers of old.

* Photo taken from http://www.askewsisters.co.uk/

If you are in London on Tuesday 3 April 2012, The Askew Sisters are performing in the Guildhall Art Gallery in the heart of the City as part of the City of London Festival.


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