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David Warwick of EDS

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

The origins of folk opera go a long way back, well before Peter Bellamy’s The Transports (the definitive one in many minds) or the 1950s radio ballads of MacColl, Seeger and Parker; to at least John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, wherein that writer took popular melodies of the time and put his own lyrics to them. Where Mick Ryan steals a pace on John Gay, in this eagerly awaited and pleasantly surprising work, is that much of the music is newly written, yet maintains the feel of being raditional. I’d swear I’d heard some of those tunes before – yet apparently not.

The navvy (short for navigator, and the source of the sweated labour which built our canal and rail systems) is stereotypically Irish in the public imagination, but it’s far from the truth. According to the sleeve notes of this album, which derives from and accompanies a stage version (watch out for it on the festival circuit this year), most navvies were English. Now there’s a myth exploded. Ryan’s forebears were involved in the industry, which gives him empathy for the subject and makes this very much a labour of love; and he has obviously inspired and infected with his enthusiasm the cast of five musicians and singers.

The CD takes its inspiration from a learned tome by the exotically-named Ultan Cowley (there’s a name to conjure with). The live version owes its genesis to a commission from the 2006 Chester Folk Festival; and all congratulations to them for doing so, Ryan gives a voice to the forgotten womenfolk: wives, mothers, lovers, widows; who they were, their emotional life, the hardships suffered, why they stayed and put up with intolerable conditions. This however is not some nineteenth century version of ‘Stand by your Man’. The songs are lyrical, tuneful, evocative; and the programme is punctuated by freely-adapted prose readings from The Men Who Built Britain by the aforementioned Cowley, The Railway Navvies by Terry Freeman, and some wonderful verse by Mick Ryan himself ... no mean poet.

Ryan’s previous record of dramatised musical work is an honourable one: Tolpuddle Man, A Day’s Work, The Voyage, and even the appallingly punnish Tanks for the Memory (maybe someone should have been punished for that title). This is a worthy addition to the canon and I look forward to seeing it on tour during the summer. So should you.