The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff

27/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Young ‘Uns are a curiously named trio of singers, three middle-aged guys in plain shirts and jeans, who amble amiably onto the stage and explain that they first acquired their name many years’ ago, when they really were the youngest members of a Teeside folk club. Then they start to sing in glorious three part harmony and it’s easy to see why Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have already won three prestigious folk awards. The sound they make together is sublime.

But who is Johnny Longstaff, you may ask? He was a teenager from Stockton-on-Tees who, back in the 1930s, found himself unemployed and hungry. Along with thousands of others, he took part  in the infamous hunger marches to London,  protesting the plight of the Northern working classes. Later, he participated in the Mass Trespass movement and the battle of Cable Street, where he and his friends violently opposed the marches of Oswald Mosely’s Brown Shirts. And later still, he was one of the many who volunteered to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War only to find, after Franco’s eventual victory, that their very existence had been erased from history. It’s a memorable story even without the music.

We hear testimony from the man himself via a series of recordings he made when he was in his sixties – and his recollections are punctuated by pieces from the trio ranging from stirring marching songs, to rambunctious drinking ditties and melancholic melodies. As they perform, a series of carefully chosen images appear on the screens behind them. A particular high point for me is the plaintive ballad that unfolds as an old photograph of Longstaff and his comrades gradually filters onto the screen. As the image finally comes onto focus, there’s the chilling realisation of how young the protagonists of this story actually were – and of the horrors they endured in the name of freedom.

This is more than just a folk concert. It’s a powerful slice of gig theatre, that deserves attention from a wider audience than just the folk purists – and judging by the packed crows at the Traverse, it appears to be reaching one. The Young ‘Uns are only around for a couple of days before they march triumphantly on to Hull and Liverpool. Grab some tickets if you can get them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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