MusicMusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff – Northern Stage, Newcastle

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Book, Lyrics and Music: The Young‘uns

Director: Lorne Campbell

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is based on an album of the same name by Teesside Folk Trio, The Young’uns. Comprising Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle, they have won 3 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including Best Group and Best Album.

Both the album and the show tell the story of a working-class activist from Stockton who spent his young life fighting fascism and injustice, based on his own experiences of poverty and deprivation. Lorne Campbell and the Young’uns have now turned this remarkable life into a theatrical presentation, including new material and animation by Scott Turnbull.

The stage is backed by an asymmetric screen, fringed like a ragged banner, and a small triangular screen like a ship’s sail at the side of the stage. The performers enter quietly, with Eagle jokily prompting the audience to applaud. They start by saying that they are not actors but folk singers and introduce their subject, Johnny Longstaff, before launching into song. From the first few notes the audience knows they are in safe hands. The joyous a capella harmonies and the rich musicality of the voices blend with masterful song-writing to deliver a powerful opening. What follows does not disappoint. Cooney’s quiet, unassuming presence as main storyteller lets the subject be the star whilst Eagle’s jokier and more rumbustious interjections provide an entertaining counterpoint. Longstaff emerges in three dimensions through the songs and text and through his own voice in extracts from his recorded memoirs. These recordings punctuate the evening and give weight to the story.

It is a rich story, worth the telling, and particularly timely as many fear the resurgence of fascism across the world. Longstaff joined the hunger marchers when he was only fifteen, as captured in the rousing Carrying the Coffin, and stayed on in London, taking part in the hostel strike against oppressive landlords. He fought Mosley’s Blackshirts, as movingly described in the powerful song Cable St, and he took part in the Mass Trespass of 1932 to open up the countryside for ramblers. He seems to have been involved in every significant fight against injustice of his time, finally embarking for the Spanish Civil War, his departure described in the nostalgic lines of Ta-ra to Tooting. Typically, the lyrics here are deceptively simple but made powerful and poignant by their detail and sincerity.

The songs that follow paint a graphic picture of his struggles in Spain, first with the unfamiliar food, as amusingly told in Paella, and then in battle: outnumbered, ill-equipped and starving. Ay Carmela tells the story of the British Battalion powerfully with Latin rhythms and No Hay Pan (no bread) is a desperately moving portrait of deprivation. Longstaff’s quiet heroism emerges, as do the commanders that he admired, David Guest and Lewis Clive, in eponymous songs that celebrate their achievements and mourn their loss. The evening ends with The Valley of Jarama, a tribute to the fallen that is almost unbearably moving, as evidenced by a well-deserved standing ovation.

Scott Turnbull’s animation, by turns graphic, elegiac or jokey, literally helps to paint the picture and is always sympathetic to the songs. The sound design by Mariam Rezaei adds texture and helps heighten the drama of the narrative. Sound engineering throughout is expertly inconspicuous, with every note heard and the music perfectly balanced.

It is a tribute to Campbell that this creative team makes the evening something much more than just a performance of the album, whilst the songs and Longstaff himself remain properly at its heart. This is a hugely entertaining, powerful and moving piece of theatre.

Runs until 22nd February 2020

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