The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
In today’s troubled world, protest marches are never far from the news headlines: equality, pay, democratic reform, are all being fought for… and especially climate change where Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s passion has inspired young people from all over the world to react.

Back in the 1930s, teenagers were also among those on the march – for the basic rights of food and jobs. Among them was a 15-year-old from Stockton-on-Tees, Johnny Longstaff, who went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War and who later recorded his story, on six hours of tape, which is now with the Imperial War Museum.

“You’re in for a long night,” quips David Eagle, one third of The Young’uns. And I’m sure the audiences at the Traverse would have happily listened.

For this Teeside folk trio’s first foray into theatre is nothing short of spellbinding. To be honest, seeing as my field is theatre and not folk, I’d never heard of The Young’uns until last night, even though they have won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards no less than three times. But The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff plants them firmly in legitimate theatre, and this has to be the start of something big.

Despite their claims that ‘we are not actors but accidental folk singers’, under the notable direction of Lorne Campbell, outgoing artistic director of Northern Stage, who were behind Sting’s musical The Last Ship, they deliver a heartfelt, enthralling story for today, seamlessly interacting with Johnny’s own voice and Scott Turnbull’s enthralling animation.

As important as Johnny’s own reminiscences are The Young’uns’ original songs, penned by Sean Cooney, who is indeed a talented poet. Standing straight and strong, the three remind me of The Proclaimers with their non-nonsense delivery and Sean’s anthemic Any Bread? and Carrying the Coffin – only The Young’uns also have a real, all-encompassing theatrical experience to offer.

With beautiful harmonies, mostly unaccompanied but sometimes with guitar, keyboard and accordion in the mix, their heartrending performances are equally matched by a couple of hilarious comic songs and David’s comedic input (well, he is also a comedian!).

You could have heard a pin drop as David, Sean and Michael Hughes recounted Johnny’s adventures and the atrocities he encountered, but at times there were gasps and even cheers of approval, as well as the odd sniffle.

The Young’uns were introduced to Johnny Longstaff's recordings by his son, Duncan. ‘That’s my dad,’ he said, holding out a photo after a gig in Somerset. ‘Write a song about him.’

The Young’uns say Johnny’s tapes are inspirational. Well, so is their show. It’s a musical tribute to Johnny Longstaff and all those who chose not to look the other way when the world needed their help, and is a lasting legacy The Young’uns should be proud of.
Image: Pamela Raith

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff can be seen from:
April 21-24 at Hull Truck Theatre
May 14-16: Liverpool Everyman Theatre