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Just For One Day review: The Live Aid musical is exhilarating and moving

The greatest day in rock history makes for electrifying theatre, writes Simon Button

5.0 rating

By Simon Button

Craige Els (Bob) and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic
Craige Els (Bob) and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic (Image: Manuel Harlan)

Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, which I covered as a junior reporter on 13 July 1985, was a once-in-a-lifetime event that I’ll never forget. It started with Status Quo’s lyrically appropriate ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ and ended with pretty much everyone who’d been on stage throughout the epic concert joining in for ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ on a rainy but hot summer’s day. And, with performances beamed in from the sister show in Philadelphia, it was a giddy high for a great cause as donations for famine relief in Ethiopia flooded in.

Queen stole the show. The Who reformed specially for the event. Paul McCartney’s mic packed in halfway through ‘Let It Be’ so all 75,000 of us in the audience sang it for him. Organiser Bob Geldof swore on primetime TV. On the other side of the pond, Madonna shook off nude pics of her in the tabloids with a defiant “I ain’t taking shit off today”. And footage of just how terrible the situation in Ethiopia was, soundtracked by The Cars’ song ‘Drive’, had everyone in tears.

Many of these moments are recreated or referenced in Just For One Day: The Live Aid Musical. But the brilliance of writer John O’Farrell and director Luke Sheppard’s concept isn’t to do a slavish run-through of the biggest event in rock history. Instead, they tell the story of how it came to be through punters and techies who were there on the day as well as Geldof and his Band Aid co-writer Midge Ure and promoter Harvey Goldsmith.

There are no lookalikes or soundalikes on stage, one notable exception being Julie Atherton’s spot-on piss-take of Margaret Thatcher, who patronisingly sings ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ and has a rap-off with Cragie Els’ equally spot-on sweary Geldof. Elsewhere, when the ensemble swings into high gear for signature songs by Bowie, Queen et al it’s for commentary, metaphor, or irony rather than impersonation.

The early stages of the Band Aid recording session gets a literal staging but that’s about it. And yes, thorny subjects such as white saviour complexes and the complexities of actually getting aid to Africa are acknowledged. They’re not brushed aside in a script that has a present-day student (“I studied the 80s in history”) questioning the whole enterprise, which makes me wonder if the critics who are complaining about it being tone-deaf went in with their own sharpened-pencil agendas.

Tamara Tare (Alicia), Olly Dobson (John) and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic
Tamara Tare (Alicia), Olly Dobson (John), and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic (Image: Manuel Harlan)

Part musical, part rock concert, it’s electrifyingly choreographed by Ebony Molina and cleverly designed by Soutra Gilmourn (even if a trick is missed by not having a revolving stage like the one that was revolutionary at Wembley in 1985). Matthew Brind’s arrangements of songs that were sung that day on both sides of the Atlantic are superb.

Geldof was in the audience on opening night, laughing and chair-dancing along. He has every reason to be pleased. The Band Aid Charitable Trust will get 10% from all ticket sales from a show that’s already a huge hit for The Old Vic and is too good not to get a West End transfer. It makes for a great night out that’s as exhilarating and moving as Live Aid itself.

Just For One Day is at the Old Vic, London, until 30 March. Get tickets here.