Part 1: The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff
After 18 months away from live performance, I’ve now been to see three shows within the last couple of weeks, and all of them dealing with fascism in very different ways: The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young ‘Uns (Northern Stage); Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia by Josh Azouz (Almeida Theatre); and Camp Siegfried by Bess Wohl (The Old Vic).
Folk trio The Young ‘Uns kicked off their tour of The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff at Newcastle’s Northern Stage. The show was written about the early life of local man John Longstaff in response to an approach from his son, who presented The Young ‘Uns with a picture of his dad and a list of things he’d done. The show handout proclaims “In a timely, touching and often hilarious musical adventure, follow the footsteps of a working class hero who chose not to look the other way when the world needed his help, and took part in some of the momentous events of the 1930s.” These included the Hunger Marches, the Battle of Cable Street, and fighting Franco and his fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The show opens up a new and rousing perspective on those events from an ‘ordinary man’ who was there.
The Young ‘Uns may not be actors – as they were quick to declare – but they kept the audience hooked from the moment they started speaking; from the first note, the songs had me enthralled. Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Jack Ritter (the latter standing in for Michael Hughes, who was unavailable due to teaching commitments – “He’s doing The Ballad of Johnny Long-staffroom”) had a great camaraderie and presence, exactly suited to the combination of songs and excerpts from Longstaff’s recorded testimony. (This format, by the way, was just perfect; I couldn’t see how the story could be told any other way.) Their songs were accompanied by evocative, skilled, sometimes simple, sometimes intricate animations that vividly illustrated the music – the gentle tracing of a photo added even more depth to the wistful Ta-ra To Tooting, while the trek over the Spanish mountains (Ay Carmela) and the adventures of Johnny’s comrades (Lewis Clive, Bob Cooney’s Miracle and David Guest) were wrought in effective splashes of colour. A live video feed at points showed the performers from different angles and added extra depth.
Be warned: the songs will stay with you (I was humming Ay Carmela and Ta-ra to Tooting for three days). Ta-ra to Tooting brought audible sniffles from the audience; Cable Street had me ready to stand up and march at a moment’s notice (especially at the end of the song, when John’s voice declares: “By this time I’d realised myself the old question of wanting a better world, and there was only one person in the world who was going to do it; that was myself, in cooperation with every other single person.”) There were several bawdy interludes from the impish David Eagle, beautifully engineered so that it sounded afterwards like he was being reproached by Longstaff (“David!” “Sorry Johnny…”)
In the second half, the instruments were too loud at times and drowned out the trio’s voices. The ending felt a bit hurried – John is wounded in Spain and hospitalised, but we don’t hear about his repatriation, nor why he ends up in the Houses of Parliament with his local MP in 1940, leading to an encounter with Churchill (!); nor do we hear about his experiences during WWII. To be fair, this would probably be too long to cover in detail; moreover, Longstaff didn’t talk about that period of his life in his testimony, which was recorded in 1986. At the end of the show, we were advised that we could listen to the entire six-hour testimony for free through the Imperial War Museum (IWM) website. (The first reel of John’s testimony can be heard here.) The album is available to buy after the show (which I promptly did), and you can also find it on YouTube. The album is great, but the live performance is brilliant. It was a tenner a ticket at Northern Stage, and I would happily have paid more. The show is touring to Hull Truck, Oxford Playhouse and York Theatre Royal until 30th October. If you can get a ticket, see it.