First published in The Times, Thursday February 13 2020
There is enough material in the biography of this show’s real-life protagonist to fill several evenings of theatre. Johnny Longstaff hailed from Stockton-on-Tees, arrived in London as part of the hunger marches of the Great Depression, fought Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street and took up arms against fascists in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
The award-winning folk trio the Young’uns (Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes) were so taken with his story that they wrote a concept album around the early episodes of Johnny’s life. The songs, which range from shouts of social protest through melancholic moods and light ditties to new takes on standards such as Ay Carmela!, form the building blocks of Lorne Campbell’s production. There is seamless interplay throughout between the music and Scott Turnbull’s evocative animation, with narration switching between the band and a longstanding recording of the leading man himself.
Pic: Pamela Raith
“We’re not actors,” the band tells us, and there is an endearing gaucheness to their interactions with the audience, their apparent shyness belying a playful energy that gradually comes to the fore. (It is unsurprising to learn that vocalist and accordion player Eagle is also a stand-up comedian.) Campbell makes a virtue of their lack of physical dynamism, delivering a simple staging that places firm emphasis on the lyrics and lovely, close-harmony singing.
There is little in the way of dramatic nuance to the storytelling: the piece is very much a paean to youthful idealism, a can-do spirit and devoted camaraderie. Still, the songs and narrative don’t flinch from the unspeakable. Johnny himself recounts the gruelling nature of the Spanish conflict (which forms the bulk of the show), the grim battles and loss of friends, in blunt detail.
Pic: Pamela Raith
Indeed, the inclusion of Johnny’s defiant, angry, at times light-hearted narration (recorded in 1986 as part of an oral history project for the Imperial War Museum) provides one of the most absorbing elements of the show. His lucid recollections are vivid and it is impossible not to feel moved by his final rendition, his voice cracking a little, of the familiar song, Jarama Valley.