The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff – Traverse Theatre

When they were only young’uns, three lads discovered their love of folk singing and continued to sing together for ten years following. Even as they grew, the band continued to be branded The Young’uns and now grace the stage of Traverse theatre with their warm harmonies. Gifted with the heartfelt story of Johnny Longstaff, a true tale of a man’s journey fighting fascism in the 1930’s, the folk trio have written a 17-song ballad as tribute to Johnny’s life. We hear the 17 songs, performed with care and emotion, a few laughs and a lot of humble talent.

Johnny Longstaff was born in poverty in Stockton-on-Tees. As a naïve teenager, he travelled to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. From this clueless young boy, Johnny became a man passionate about protesting and fighting for equality. Delving into bigger issues concerning integrity and equality, The Young’uns have spun a riveting story from Johnny’s extraordinary life, peppered with quaint anecdotes and personal details. Before his death, at the age of 67, Johnny Longstaff himself recorded 6 hours’ worth of autobiographical material. The original recordings from Johnny are woven into the show; his bright optimistic voice matching the tone of the show perfectly.

Image descriptionThe first time the band burst into song, I felt chills. The harmonies are wonderful. The tone is familiar and friendly, with each performer bringing their own personality to the stage. Sean Cooney’s writing and leading voice is a joy to hear, Michael Hughes’ harmonies soar over the top of the music and David Eagle’s comic repartee and rich tones connect with the audience to no end. Accompanying themselves occasionally on the piano, guitar or accordion, the musical tone is charming, although lacks variation throughout the show.

Image descriptionAlthough there is little visual action onstage to illustrate the story of Johnny Longstaff, beautifully designed animations are projected onto the set. Like a distressed sail, the set is a vast backdrop of draping white material. Turnbull and Brady have created stunning animations to accompany the story! In a range of artistic styles, the animations perfectly capture the mood of each song. At times, the animations are the focal point and outshine the performers. The band supports the animations, rather than the other way around. The performers admit themselves that they are not actors, and whilst their natural charisma enchants the audience, it is occasionally obvious that substantial effort is required to keep the narrative flowing. 

I have promptly added The Young’uns to my Spotify repertoire. Their toe-tapping narratives are not to be missed, and I’m sure that Johnny Longstaff would be flattered and charmed by this sincere tribute.

PHOTOS: Pamela Raith Photography

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Aiyana Tandon

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