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Johnny Longstaff, the civil servant who defended Cable St and, underage, fought fascism in Spain

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The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff
at the Oxford Playhouse
September 28-30

Review by JON LEWIS

Lorne Campbell’s revelatory Northern Stage production The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff celebrates an ordinary civil servant, buried in obscurity in Somerset, who led an extraordinary life when young. His story has been thrillingly brought to life by The Young’uns – Sean Cooney, Jack Rutter and David Eagle - twice BBC Radio 2 Folk Band of the Year. How wonderful it would be if history lessons were like this show – informative, emotive, fun, and visually as well as aurally fascinating.

In 1934, at the age of 15, Longstaff joined one of the national hunger marches from his native North East to London, despite being too young for the trek. After being exploited in low-paid jobs in catering, Longstaff, now a member of the Labour Party League of Youth in Wandsworth, furthered his credentials as a protester by trespassing via the mass rambles demanding access for all to the countryside. He developed his identity as an antifascist by defending Cable Street in London’s East End against the organised forces of Mosley’s Blackshirts and then, still underage, enlisted in the foreign brigades in Spain, fighting near Barcelona against Fascist forces. Somehow surviving sniper fire and bridges being blown up, Longstaff fought in the Second World War, and was decorated in action in North Africa and Italy. In 1986 Longstaff recorded his memories on a six-hour tape held at the Imperial War Museum, and it is this recording that provides the voiceover for this incredibly moving production.

Pamela Raith Photography
Pamela Raith Photography

Campbell has marshalled a great team – notably Scott Turnbull and Adam Brady’s stunning animations and projections. Grey, smoky factories hint at the industrial north of England. Line drawings of Longstaff’s fellow soldiers beautifully fade into photographs of the heroic young men. The chilly snow-capped Pyrenees become tinged with an orange glow as Spain becomes visible from France. The Young’uns suggest that most of the songs in the show would have been familiar to Longstaff, who we hear at the end of the show singing a number The Young’uns performed. It’s an emotive, heartwrenching moment, a ghost present at the feast of remembrance.

The first standing ovation I’ve witnessed in two years. Unforgettable.

Pamela Raith Photography
Pamela Raith Photography

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