JUST FOR ONE DAY at the Old Vic Theatre
“high-energy, high-power, dynamic staging that pays tribute to what was possibly one of the greatest events in music history”
A decade before the Live Aid concert, David Bowie was holed up in a studio in West Berlin with a three-chord instrumental track ‘in the can’, as it were. But no lyrics. During a cigarette break he observed a young couple, by the Berlin wall, sharing a furtive kiss before going their separate ways. Inspiration struck, and ‘Heroes’ was born. He was almost certainly unaware of the anthem the song would evolve into, adopted by many causes – most famously Live Aid – as a signature tune; the lyrics eventually spawning the title for the Old Vic’s jukebox, nostalgia-fest of a musical. His estate was among the first to pitch in to give permission, so somebody must be doing something right.
In fact, a lot of people are doing a lot of things right. And according to the thousand plus jubilant crowd crammed into the Old Vic, the cast of “Just For One Day” can do no wrong. After two and a half hours it is nigh on impossible not to be swept along by the waves of enthusiasm that sway to the final crashing bars of ‘Let It Be’. The unintended pseudo-religious quality of McCartney’s lyrics matches the preachiness of the show’s final message, even if that message is the complete opposite of ‘letting it be’.
Writer John O’Farrell seems to have pre-empted the flak that present-day, tag-hungry sanctimony was going to throw his way, and he has dealt with the subject with good humour, even if it is as cheesy as it comes at times. But we’re revisiting the eighties after all – the decade that fashion forgot, and we hadn’t accelerated back to the future yet in our DeLoreans and shoulder pads, so let’s try and forgive the inanity of the book. Director Luke Sheppard helps us do just that with his high-energy, high-power, dynamic staging that pays tribute to what was possibly one of the greatest events in music history.
Whichever you look at it, the glossy razzmatazz is a glorious recreation of some wonderful music. But the stabs at analysis and commentary are way too simplistic. We are introduced to various individuals who stand up proclaiming ‘I was there’, while others proudly claim not to have been born yet as though their completely random date of birth gives them superiority. The generations clash and eventually come together. Of course they do. Elsewhere the earnestness is dispensed with entirely with stabs at humour – which is generally more successful and elicit some laugh out loud moments. Already larger than life characters (Sir Bob, Margaret Thatcher, Harvey Goldsmith, Charles and Diana, and innumerable musical icons) are given even larger life in a sort of ‘Spitting Image’ without the puppets scenario.
“Pangs of nostalgia reverberate in time to the kick drum while our own internal rhythms are swinging from bemusement to enjoyment in double time”
The music celebrity crème-de-la-crème of the 1980s is being represented on stage, and Sheppard has assembled the musical theatre crème-de-la-crème of the 2020s. Matthew Brind’s arrangements exceed the X Factor as we race through vast chunks of the set list from Wembley and Philadelphia. The further away the numbers stray from their original structure, the more moving they become; as highlighted by Abiona Omonua’s rendition of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ which powerfully transports us to the ravished plains of Ethiopia. Meanwhile Jack Shalloo, as a rakish Midge Ure, swoops through ‘Vienna’ with soaring glissandos. Danielle Steers, as Marsha – one of the Live Aid event’s organisers, is in unmistakably fine voice throughout; as is Jackie Clune, playing the now grown-up teenager who skipped her O’ Levels to grab a ticket for the concert. At the centre, inevitably, is the foul mouthed, ‘Saint Bob’. Craige Els swaps impersonation for a series of soundbites and witticisms that give him the more accurate title of ‘patron saint of the humble brag’. Writer O’Farrell’s comic flair is accentuated during Geldof’s surreally depicted standoffs with Margaret Thatcher (Julie Atherton on top form).
Gareth Owen’s sound is faultless. And bombastic enough to reduce the Old Vic’s stuccoed tiers and balconies to dust. But we don’t care – it’s like there is no roof to bring down anyway as we imagine we’re all waving our lighters under an azure, stadium sky. As we gaze around the auditorium, surveying the faces beaming with joy, it is hard to reconcile the fact that this musical (and the Live Aid event itself) comes with the inevitable flotsam of modernist accusations of ‘white saviourism’. Of course, Sir Bob Geldof has vehemently denied such allegations. One can sympathise with Geldof, and it is ultimately unfair and irrelevant to wave the neo racist flag at an event that occurred four decades ago. Yes, in hindsight the value of the gig can still be debated. But that is another discussion. “Just For One Day” doesn’t really want to go there, but the fact that it feels impelled to, feeds the narrative with half-hearted, perfunctory banality.
It is a divided show, in content and in structure. Act One deals with the build-up while Act Two covers the titular ‘One Day’ – in London and in Philadelphia. And that is where it truly comes alive. Pangs of nostalgia reverberate in time to the kick drum while our own internal rhythms are swinging from bemusement to enjoyment in double time. In the end the latter wins, and we leave the theatre on the upbeat. By the time we’re out, dancing in the streets, we have forgotten the duff notes, and we’re not just singing the songs but singing the praises of the singers too.
JUST FOR ONE DAY at the Old Vic Theatre
Reviewed on 16th February 2024
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed at this venue:
JUST FOR ONE DAY
JUST FOR ONE DAY