MusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff – Northern Stage Newcastle upon Tyne

Reviewer: Anna Ambelez

Book & Lyrics:  The Young’uns

Director: Lorne Campbell

Animation Designer: Scott Turnbull

This amazing true story is brought to life by the award winning trio, The Young’uns. Sean Cooney, Michael Eagle and Jack Rutter (for Michael Hughes), begin the show telling of how the group formed. Three lads, discovered a folk club in the back of a Stockton pub with local people singing about their area in a local accent without music, folk singing and they were hooked. Being some forty years younger than everyone else, they were called The Young’uns and the name stuck.

At a Somerset gig a man approached them with an idea for a song about his father, Johnny Longstaff. That song turned into seventeen and this show was born. Longstaff, born in Stockton-On-Tees in October 1919, had an incredible life. Starting in poverty, he was involved and bore witness to some of the most defining events of the 20th century. Injured at the foundry, he found himself unemployed and at only 15 joined the 1934  hunger march to London; not deterred by being told he was too young he followed from a distance and was eventually allowed to join in.

He was involved in the battle of Cable Street, when he first heard “No Pasaron”, Spanish for “they will not pass”. At 17 he enlisted in the 15th International Brigade going to Spain and fought in the Spanish Civil War. He maintained a strong affection for the Spanish people, who in his eyes showed the world how to stand up against dictatorship. He was with Clive Lewis, the 1932 Olympian gold medallist when he died. Longstaff was seriously wounded, temporarily blinded and returning to England when World War II broke out. He met Churchill who asked if he would fight against Hitler and he replied, “Sir, I have been fighting Hitler all my life”. He went on to fight in North Africa and Italy, made sergeant and awarded for gallantry. Married with three children he died in 2000 aged 79.

All these facts and countless more are revealed in the show in a most moving, poignant way. The actual voice of Longstaff relays many facts of his life in recordings made before he died; they are available from the British War Museum. This incredible life of an English working class anti-fascist activist, is presented in a combination of his recorded voice, outstanding quality  harmonised barber shop singing, against a background of extremely engaging, clever animation (Scott Turnbull). The animators, Aaron Brady and Emily Howells are also to be congratulated as the images are constantly, emerging, growing and changing, very absorbing, hypnotic and often extremely humorous.

The group say they are musicians not actors but they do themselves a disservice, their relentless banter is entertaining, enchanting, engaging, educational, enthralling and an exhilarating experience, as the whole evening is; a show not to be missed.

Runs until 18th September 2021

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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