The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff review at Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne – ‘moving, rousing, triumphant’
Artistic director Lorne Campbell’s final show at Northern Stage before he joins National Theatre Wales sees him returning to a theme that has characterised much of his tenure in Newcastle: telling working class stories with dignity, humour and flair.
Local folk trio The Young’uns (Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle) recount the true story of Johnny Longstaff, a young man from Stockton on Tees who went from the Hunger Marches of the 1930s to the Spanish Civil War. A mix of songs and spoken word, complemented by Scott Turnbull’s evocative visuals, the production makes powerful use of recordings of Longstaff himself, his voice bringing an immediacy and intimacy no performer could match.
As well as being talented vocalists, the band are delightful storytellers. Though they treat the material with the respect it deserves, there’s plenty of wit and humour and, even at its most moving, the piece is never po-faced.
Much like Campbell’s earlier triumph, The Last Ship, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff marries clear-eyed pragmatism with lyricism and gorgeous design (working class stories deserve beauty too), seamed through with a stirring idealism about what activism and solidarity can achieve.
Whether it’s battling landed gentry for access to the countryside they seek to control or fighting fascists in Cable Street or Spain, Longstaff’s life was about seeing what was wrong, and not being willing to stand for it. In a time when the same evils once more abound, it’s a rousing reminder that we should do the same.
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