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David Kidman of Netrythms

reviews The Navvy's Wife by The Navvy's Wife Cast

This musical drama is the latest of Mick Ryan’s folk-operas, and arguably the finest, for in this instance Mick has a special, and profound, degree of empathy with his subject. Several of the songs were originally written to accompany Ultan Cowley’s lecture The Men Who Built Britain, later forming the basis of a show on that theme commissioned for 2006’s Chester Folk Festival.

For the present revival, and this recording, Mick has gathered together a superb little Company comprising Heather Bradford, Judy Dunlop and Jackie Oates (to portray the all-important women’s roles), together with Paul Downes and Roger Watson (for instrumental backing and supporting male roles). Mick is in commanding and glorious voice as Paddy himself, but though his is a key role he doesn’t hog centre stage, and the show’s most poignant moments are (entirely fittingly) the province of the women, for whom Mick writes with true compassion, understanding and dignity. The songs’ timeless styling enables the creative interweaving of a linking commentary and poems; it’s all Mick’s own work, although a few of the songs are set to traditional melodies.

The show takes a loosely historical-chronological approach (the role of the navvy through the industrial ages), through which runs the common thread of the navvy’s life, emotions, work and loves, with the tragedies in both the workplace and the personal arena leavened by episodes of broader comedy. The impact on the women in the navvies’ lives occupies the sharpest focus however, powerfully examining issues such as poverty, rootlessness, racism and attitudes to death. The ladies’ idealism and realism are brilliantly conveyed in The Women’s Song and Judy’s matchless performance of the show’s title-song, while particularly tender moments of personal heartbreak come with Heather’s Farewell My Son and Jackie’s I Miss Him. Some archetypal lilting-patter is cleverly built into Don’t Forget, while the convincing individual character-portraits include Roger’s railway contractor (Brassey) and retired navvy Old Tim (Just Like You), and Paul’s priest.

Great virtue is made of the small instrumental complement by means of the excellent musicianship, with Paul’s expert, nifty guitar (occasionally augmented with banjo or mandolin) providing the principal undercurrent, subtly enhanced by Roger’s melodeon or concertina and Jackie’s five-string fiddle-viola.

Mick’s supreme achievement in this compelling new show is to give a voice to the men and women whose lives were shaped by the drive to build through the ages; it’s a triumph, and proves the worthiest of companions to Mick’s previous works in this format. You can catch the semi-staged show at several folk festivals this summer.