The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff @ Traverse, Edinburgh

This tribute to an anti-fascism activist from Teesside is musically gorgeous and politically rousing

Review by Clare Patterson | 04 Mar 2020
  • The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Written and performed by Teesside folk trio The Young’uns, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff begins with an introduction from the band. Sat on the stage with the house lights up, they explain their first experience of folk music, as teenagers in the pub where they “heard people singing songs in our accents, about places we knew.” This opening presents us with one of the greatest qualities of folk music – its specificity and personal meaning to the people and places who sing it.

What better medium, then, to tell the story of Johnny Longstaff? Johnny was a fellow Teesside native whose extraordinary life took him from an impoverished childhood to an adolescence of protest and antifascist activism, from the Hunger Marches to the Battle of Cable Street to fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Having been handed the story (quite literally) by Johnny’s son, who approached the band after a gig and suggested there “might be a song” in his father’s life, they were then given over six hours of recordings of Johnny telling his own life story. These recordings are woven into the performance, introducing and elaborating upon the songs and grounding the deeply personal, intimate storytelling style associated with the folk tradition.

The sense of place and memory in these recordings is palpable, enriched by Aaron Brady’s beautiful hand-drawn animations projected onto a sparse set almost resembling a torn revolutionary flag. The show's blend of storytelling and song feels very natural, and although the band begin with the self-deprecating admission that they are ‘not actors’, they look every inch at home on stage. Their storytelling, both spoken and beautifully sung, easily holds the audience rapt.

The songs themselves are gorgeous – the narrative suits the rich traditional and leftist folk traditions which the band borrow from and nod to, and the music moves seamlessly from rousing protest anthems to sincere, touching laments to moments of comedy without one aspect ever undercutting the other.

A genuinely heartening, emotional and inspiring piece of theatrical storytelling, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff burns with the fire of revolutionary activism. It's a timely, motivational reminder of the necessity of fighting for a better world.