“Something must be done”.
Last night’s performance of The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’Uns at Oxford Playhouse was one of those experiences that goes beyond simply being an enjoyable night out (which it was). It felt like one of those events that stays with you, quietly whispering in your ear when you are wondering what to do about the times you live in, quietly prodding you to be brave, to do more, to stand up and be counted.
Johnny Longstaff was a real person – his son first approached The Young’Uns at a folk session in a pub, and handed them a list of what Johnny had done in his life, with the idea that there might be a song in there. The result is an album, and this show – currently touring theatres across the UK. Because Johnny’s story needs telling.
The performance started with an intro from the band – actually, only two of the regular trio (Sean Cooney and David Eagle), plus Jack Rutter, who has done an incredible job of getting up to speed with this intricate show, whilst the third Young’Un continues his work as a teacher. They pointed out that they’re musicians, not actors – although that distinction felt irrelevant, because it was immediately clear we were in the hands of master storytellers.
The band used a mix of song, spoken word and animated visuals, combined with original recordings of Johnny telling his story - to take us on a journey. We travelled with him, from the empty bellies of his childhood in Stockton, down to London via a hunger march, through formative experiences in a city where luxury and poverty have long been uneasy bedfellows, and then on to Spain, to fight fascism. The initial thread we follow through the first half then weaves an intricate, vivid tapestry in the second, as we get the details of what Johnny experienced in the Spanish Civil War.
Musically, the show is an absolute treat – sublime harmonies perfectly balancing the precision required in a show of this nature with the sense that you’re hearing an echo of Johnny and his comrades. It’s music as theatre, rather than ‘musical theatre’. The use of instruments is restrained and all the more effect as a result – rather than give every tune a ‘full bodied’ accompaniment, we get repeated phrases interjecting at key points – building up to the emotionally heavy-hitting moments of a reworked ¡Ay Carmela!. The most poignant musical detail for me was right at the end, when we hear Johnny himself singing the song that surviving volunteers sang when they returned to Spain following the death of Franco.
Words like hunger, suffering, war and fascism should not mislead anyone into thinking this is a 'difficult' show – it’s still very much a piece of entertainment. Johnny Longstaff put himself forward for the big events of his time, but the show also captures his humour – it’s there in his recordings (which can be heard in full via the Imperial War Museum), and in a handful of Monty Python-esque moments. It’s really a show about having a deep-felt warmth for fellow humans, regardless of their nationality, religion, ethnicity, background or circumstances, and feeling compelled to act on that – to stand up against forces which threaten to deny others their full human dignity.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff sits in excellent company – somewhere between the West End hit War Horse and the Edinburgh award-winning Dispatches on the Red Dress (two of the most moving war story performances I’ve seen), and I would encourage everyone to experience it for themselves. It’s a great story – and so much more - and fully deserved last night's standing ovation.