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Just For One Day at the Old Vic Theatre | Review

This show is not a re-enactment of the Live Aid benefit concert in July 1985. The whole thing was ten hours long, or just over sixteen hours if the concert in the USA, which happened on the same day, was also considered. Technically, of course, as the London and Philadelphia concerts significantly overlapped, the whole thing was even longer than that. What it tries to do is tell the story of how Live Aid came about, though I couldn’t help thinking the production seems to contradict itself, in the sense that the spoken dialogue asserts, on several occasions, that it isn’t about the music, so much as it is about humanitarian relief for the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia.

Jo Foster (Bernie), Emily Ooi (Ellie) and Tamara Tare (Alicia) in Just For One Day at The Old Vic.
Jo Foster (Bernie), Emily Ooi (Ellie) and Tamara Tare (Alicia) in Just For One Day at The Old Vic.

But so much of Just For One Day is about the music, with considerable efforts made to reproduce a stadium-esque soundscape: Gareth Owen’s sound design moves between quiet spoken conversations to full-blown pop and rock numbers blasted out. The programme, while providing a list of musical numbers (some of which, thanks to musicals like The Who’s Tommy and We Will Rock You, are already in the musical theatre canon), doesn’t quite extend to telling the audience who sings what.

There are cursory nods in John O’Farrell’s book to some of the problems Live Aid presents through contemporary lenses, as Jemma (Naomi Katiyo) ‘explains’ – inverted commas mine – to Bob Geldof (Craige Els) and to Live Aid attendee and Red Cross volunteer Suzanne (Jackie Clune) that her generation, in 2024, would have staged the concert differently, a reference to the lack of diversity in the London lineup. It is, Jemma observes, a list of “old white guys taking a day off from snorting cocaine”. (The Philadelphia concert did better in this regard, with contributions from Joan Baez, Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Patti LaBelle and Tina Turner.) Geldof replied that he worked to get the maximum exposure possible, and as this production would have it, the whole thing was thrown together with just a few weeks’ notice.

Of course, these days, the lyrics to Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ are quite ridiculous – the Christian religion is thriving in Africa. There’s a momentary outburst in the show which comes very close to that old adage that Africa is not one country. Possibly the hardest role to pull off here is Margaret Thatcher (Julie Atherton), and in her exchanges with Geldof it’s clear who the production considers to be the antagonist. Atherton does an excellent job, with her Thatcher incorporating song lyrics into her responses and ripostes in a way that makes the Iron Lady almost (I repeat: almost) likeable.

The songs are spliced up by spoken dialogue, or otherwise truncated, or both: I don’t recall hearing a single song from beginning to end in its entirety. Oh, and a spoiler for you: according to the programme, “this is a fictionalised account”. The show is not asserting Live Aid never happened, but rather that the dialogues are not verbatim conversations. As it is, without Geldof’s abrasiveness, the show would have been far too sugary and earnest, and I couldn’t help but agree with him whenever someone was told to shut the f— up or f—ing get on with it.

It is, in the end, commendable, that nobody tries to emulate, say, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie or Paul McCartney, with the 26-strong company at liberty to sing the songs of Live Aid, sometimes with fresh arrangements and orchestrations (Matthew Brind), in a different but nonetheless heartfelt way. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d plump for the re-arranged ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, not the only number that, thanks to being given the musical theatre treatment, has more easily decipherable lyrics.

The production, perhaps unsurprisingly, judges Live Aid to have been a resounding success, although the world’s problems being what they are in 2024 suggests there’s more work than ever to be done. With a mixture of nostalgia and a consideration of how much logistical effort was required to pull off Live Aid, it’s a very slick and brilliantly performed production. It’s not perfect, and occasionally downright cringeworthy, but it will at least provide plenty of conversation on the journey home.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

‘We can be us, just for one day’
Relive the day music brought the world together.

Featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Who, U2, Queen, The Police, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Pretenders, The Cars, Status Quo, Sade, The Boomtown Rats, Diana Ross, Ultravox and more, this is the story of Live Aid and the people united by it.

Political unrest, social revolution, boom and bust. In a decade of neon and noise, one moment made the world stand still and brought 1.5 billion people together – and they all have a story to tell about ‘the day rock ‘n’ roll changed the world’.

A cast of 26 star in the world premiere of Just For One Day, a new musical written by John O’Farrell (Mrs Doubtfire, Something Rotten) and directed by Luke Sheppard (& Juliet, The Little Big Things).

10% from the sale of all tickets will be donated directly to The Band Aid Charitable Trust.

An Old Vic Production By permission of The Band Aid Charitable Trust

Just For One Day is supported by Jamie Wilson Productions, Kevin McCollum, Sonia Friedman Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Kenny Wax Ltd and the Ambassador Theatre Group.

The Old Vic Theatre
Booking to 30th March 2024

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