John Giddens reviews The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff at The Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne
The North East based contemporary folk trio, The Young'uns, tell the tale of how they were approached by a man, after a gig, in a pub in the south of England. He handed them a box of papers and photographs and asked them to make some songs about his dad. Duncan Longstaff told them about his father Johnny and his incredible involvement in most of the momentous social and political issues of the 1930's. The papers and Duncan's memories were enhanced by a tape recording of Johnny lodged in the Imperial War Museum's sound archives. The result is a beautifully crafted, moving, funny and very powerful stage production - The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff.
The story, in music, spoken word and a simple but visually stunning stage set, is of Stockton boy Johnny Longstaff, born into poverty and who, as a young teen, is impelled to challenge the injustices of cruel and exploitative work places in the 1930's. His remarkable story, told with songs like "Carrying the Coffin" and "Hostel Strike", takes Johnny to London on a hunger march where his political education is furthered by fighting Mosley's Black Shirts at Cable Street and with his involvement in the Mass Trespass and Right to Roam Movements in his spare time.
As well as being talented musicians and powerful vocalists the Young'Uns are brilliant and engrossing story tellers. However, it's the use of the voice of Johnny Longstaff himself, interspersed throughout the show, that brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye as he recounts, as an old man, the experiences of his youth. The hearing of Johnny's voice brings an emotional and human element to the production that no narrator or songsmith could achieve.
His story moves to Spain with Johnny, aged just 17, joining the British Battalion of the International Brigades. The song "Ta-ra to Tooting" tells of Johnny meeting up with his mates before he leaves for Spain and is accompanied by swirling lines on a backdrop that, movingly, slowly morph in to a photo taken of Johnny and his incredibly youthful "fascist fighting" friends.
He sees action on the River Ebro, at Gandesa and Corbera d'Ebre. These are places I have been to many times but will now "feel" them in a different way next time I go after hearing Johnny's voice tell of his war against fascism and of his burying fallen comrades, shot and killed next to him, as they make their way under fire through the olive groves and vineyards in the baking heat of Catalunya.
The juxtaposition of the passionate, strong, but at times quivering voice of the "old" Johnny with the images of the young idealistic anti-fascist Johnny, together with some beautiful a cappella singing of the Young'uns, is a mechanism that gives a powerful and lasting impression of a true working-class hero.
Around 500 of the British volunteers gave their lives fighting fascism in Spain. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is a wonderfully uplifting and fitting tribute, not just to Johnny, but to all the men and women who made the journey over the Pyrenees to defend the Spanish Republic.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is on at the Northern Stage, Newcastle till 22nd February, and then tours to the Everyman, Liverpool and Traverse, Edinburgh.