Review: The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff at York Theatre Royal

Hailed as a ‘new and unique piece of modern Folk Theatre’ The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff celebrates working-class activism. It is a true story of the struggle against poverty and unemployment beginning in Stockton on Tees but reflects the history of all the country and the suffering felt by those involved in the depression. The tale tells of Hunger marches, the mass Trespass Movement and the battle of Cable Street against Mosley and the British fascists. Johnny Longstaff is the working-class hero of the times and through his personal experiences, gives a terrific insight into the reality of Britain before the Second World War.

By Angie Millard

This is achieved by using recordings of his voice to tell his story. Without sentimentality Longstaff narrates while the Young’uns sing and the blend is compelling.

Young’uns are a trio of talented Folk musicians from Teeside who trace Longstaff’s life, featuring their original album, alongside new material. Songs like Carrying The Coffin and Non Hey Pain (No Bread) need little explanation.

The use of stunning animation and visual effects propel the action forward, adding dynamic images as a backdrop.

Produced by Northern Stage this follows their production of The Last Ship which told the heart-breaking story of the demise of ship building in the area. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is more personal and therefore more affecting.

The music which accompanies the narrative is of a traditional genre folk music which has a particular appeal through its honesty; it is often about political struggle and hardship and is raw and uncompromising.

Lorne Campbell directs with assurance and is much helped by the set created by Scott Turnbull. Monochrome photos are used and Lowry-esque like paintings of cold, pinched faces on the hunger march South. There are clever techniques incorporating line drawings which develop into photos of the men. Under the projections there is a fringe which cleverly represents the rags of poverty then subtly changes through lighting to become the icicles of the Sierra Nevada and the blood soaked tatters of the soldiers’ uniforms. 

Longstaff fought through to the end of the Second World War and in his own voice tells us of his battle against Fascism. He speaks movingly of The Spanish Republicans who failed in their attempt to beat Franco during The Spanish Civil War.

If anyone was in doubt, his voice is an advocate for Freedom and the Young’uns give him full support. I never gave full weight to how Fascism took root and its beginnings were there in The Spanish Civil War. 

Longstaff’s son gave the Young Un’s the information about his father, hoping they would write a song about him. The resultant show is a fantastic tribute, especially as it is Longstaff’s voice which predominates.

The production is very effective and not at all what I anticipated. Why not get down to York theatre Royal and give yourself an unexpected treat.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff plays at York Theatre Royal from 29 to 30 October 2021. The director is Lorne Campbell. Animation is by Scott Turnbull. Sound Design is by Mariam Rezael. It’s performed by the Young’uns