In a hale of five-star reviews from the U.K, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff has arrived at the Harbourfront Centre for its Canadian debut.
“I guess I should have asked this at the beginning, but did any of you understand a word of that?” asked award-winning folk artist Sean Cooney following rapturous applause by the audience. It is true, folk group The Young’uns from County Durham, England, do have rather thick accents, but what better than the regional mother tongue to tell the story of a Stockton on Tees working class hero, Johnny Longstaff? Incredibly, the intricate evening comprised of 17 narrative songs is based on the real-life story of Longstaff, a man who clawed his way out of poverty while fighting a lifelong battle against fascism. With excerpts of his real voice recordings peppered throughout the piece, there is something evocatively ghostly about the performance, which summons the spirit of Longstaff ( who died 22 years ago) to the stage.
Perhaps almost as fascinating as the story of the man himself is the way in which Johnny Longstaff was delivered to the group. As they tell it, following a performance in a pub back in England, a man came up to the band with a handful of information about his late father and suggested they might like to write a song about him. As they delved a little deeper into his story, they realized there was a whole album worth of material. To me, it almost seems as if the universe selected the Young’uns to tell his story, but an evening of folk music has always had the power to make one feel a little mystical.
Through 90 minutes of vocal performance, projections and animations, the audience is taken on a journey from below the breadline of Northern England to the hunger marches of the 1930s, the Battle of Cable street in London and onwards to Spain through the onset of the Spanish Civil War, often considered the first wave of the Fascism epidemic that swept Europe in the 20th Century. Longstaff lied about his age in order to volunteer to fight, entrenching himself further into hardship.
Deepening the intensity of the tale Kai Fischer’s set and lighting design contributed to a more immersive experience, as did Scott Turnball’s animation direction. It is a rare treat to have a dramatized version of folk songs, which are usually backdropped by sticky pub tables and spilled ale. Visually guided through suggestions of fog, smog and mountain ranges, the audience really felt as if they were trucking along with Longstaff and his boys as they tried their best to drag themselves from the gutter.
Performed in the traditional style of folk song, the Young’us deliver Johnny’s compelling story predominantly in acappella, although at times light instrumentation is introduced for key punctuation. If you’re expecting a musical, this is not it. Folklore and musical storytelling dates back millennia and there is something more raw and unpolished about it, which allows for a greater human connection. Some first-night jitters stood in the way of the bold confidence needed to carry off such an epic tale with aplomb, but then it has been literally years since we’ve all been to the theatre. I for one really delighted in being back in the auditorium and Longstaff’s tale was one I will think about for years to come, thanks to The Young’uns, who were also careful to highlight areas of Canadian involvement in their tale.
90 odd years after Longstaff’s fight in Spain, the world is still a precarious political place. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was an excellent reminder that the actions of “ordinary” people are often the most extraordinary. So cheers to Johnny, who I am certain was with us last night.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff runs at the Harbourfront Centre until November 27th, 2022.