If you’re not already a big fan of The Young’uns’ and their authentic, primarily a capella folk music, then I’d recommend that you add them to your playlist without further delay.

At a recent show in Newcastle, the band were magnificent, moving, extremely funny, humble and, I think, maybe even a little bit proud that the audience was so captivated by their story.

A theatrical version of The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff, performed by the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Winners, has returned to Northern Stage until September 18, 2021. Directed by Lorne Campbell, The Young’uns, Northern Stage and Harbourfront Centre Toronto, an extraordinary tale of northern working class activism is brought to life by music from the band’s original album. This is accompanied by some stunning animation.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. Image by Pamela Raith_photographyIt’s the law that I champion all things Yorkshire so, at this point, I’ll flag up the fact that while the band’s Michael Hughes is off becoming a teacher, Holme Valley’s very own Jack Rutter is now part of the trio.

Before the performance kicked off proper, the three lads sat down at the edge of the stage and explained what they do and why they do it. David Eagle joked that they would be responsible for doing everything on stage because folk singers are cheaper than actors, which set the perfect tone for the evening.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff tells the true story of one man’s journey from poverty and unemployment in Stockton-on-Tees, through the Hunger Marches of the 1930s, the Mass Trespass movement and the Battle of Cable Street, to fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. We follow the life of a working class hero who chose not to look the other way when the world needed his help and, as a result, was involved in some of the most momentous events of the 1930s.

Clearly, the band’s Sean Cooney is profoundly moved by the Johnny Longstaff story. In a press release for the show, Cooney said: “When Duncan Longstaff told us the incredible story of his dad’s life, we knew we had been given something very special. This is our big chance to share Johnny with the world he fought so hard to raise at the time it needs him most.”

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. Image by Pamela Raith_photographyLongstaff is at the centre of the performance. Before his death in 2000, Longstaff’s testimony was recorded, and the audio is housed at the Imperial War Museum. It is an incredible listen. Having studied hours of these recordings, Cooney, Eagle, Hughes and Rutter have succeeded in ensuring that a man, and his desire to right wrongs, is as relevant today as he was in the 1930s.

The Young’uns have created something that is both traditional and contemporary with The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. The story of a young man from the North East, who is forced to leave his home town in search of employment and undergoes a profound political awakening as he fights for social justice, opposes fascism, racism and the vested interests of a global capitalist system, feels incredibly current. It’s just as likely that this story could have taken place today as in the time leading up to the Second World War.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. Image by Pamela Raith_photographyLongstaff’s story reminds us that long-lasting change always rises from ordinary people. This is the perfect show to encapsulate Northern Stage as a linchpin in the creative movement in the North. Local in context, global in ambition, accessible in form and always innovative in style.

Production animation is by Scott Turnbull (Where Do All the Dead Pigeons Go?/Northern Stage at Summerhall), Aaron Brady and Emily Howells. The sound design is by composer, performer, DJ and improviser Mariam Rezaei.

After the run in Newcastle, there are additional chances for northern audiences to catch this important production. The show moves to Hull Truck Theatre and York Theatre Royal this autumn.

By Colin Petch

Main images: The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. Image by Pamela Raith Photography