Review: Just For One Day, Old Vic

Just For One Day – The Live Aid Musical offers up an uplifting and refreshing take on the jukebox musical at the Old Vic

“Maybe that might be enough”

In a musical that features so many iconic tunes of the 80s, it is kind of mental that the one song from Just For One Day that is sticking in my head is the sole original track with Margaret Thatcher and Bob Geldof doing a Hamilton-esque verbal duel Mrs T / Mr G. Partly because it features one of my absolute faves in Julie Atherton, alongside a superb Craige Els, and partly because it is just so unexpected.

I’m not sure if the world was particularly crying out for a Live Aid musical but between John O’Farrell’s book, Luke Sheppard’s direction and particularly Matthew Brind’s musicals arrangements, the show really did win me over, assuaging my doubts even as they bubbled up, with a generosity of spirit to its performance and honourable intentions that feel hard to resist.

O’Farrell and Sheppard’s approach is almost one of a musical scrapbook which takes some getting used to. A young activist today asks what Live Aid was all about; a charity worker remembers being a teenager as it was all happening; Bob Geldof begrudgingly recalls the whole experience from the coal face; an aid worker in Ethiopia details the famine first-hand – there’s a lot of perspectives but eventually, like a kaleidoscope, they shift and click into place.

And naturally, music is threaded throughout the show, utilised in a multitude of ways and wisely steering clear of any direct attempts at impersonation. The 26-strong company are largely onstage throughout, popping up from a bank of seats to join a scene or bring us a song – some of the Live Aid acts get to introduce themselves, Ultravox arrive to ‘Dancing with Tears in My Eyes’ for instance (Jack Shalloo’s Midge Ure is top drawer), others get mere snippets, others still not included at all (poor Sade).

Other tracks, often those performed at the Philadelphia gig gets folded into book scenes. A gorgeously haunting rendition of The Cars’ ‘Drive’ soundtracks reports of the famine, The Police’s ‘Message in a Bottle’ propels us to a gloriously punchy Act 1 finale, a powerful take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (Abiona Omonua excelling) catches the breath as Soutra Gilmour’s set and Howard Hudson’s lighting combine to stunning impact.

As I said, there are aspects that may raise an eyebrow. The Ethiopian perspective is somewhat filtered through a white liberal guilt lens, the focus on the youth of today being the way forward (hamfistedly soundtracked by ‘My Generation’) possibly lets off the boomers more happy to play airguitar than activist and as Geldof’s reputation is undoubtedly burnished, is it perhaps a little hagiographic?

By the end, I don’t think I cared, such is the exuberance of the production. The brilliance of the mash-ups scattered throughout the songlist are just thrilling; classics like ‘Vienna’ (Shalloo again) and ‘Against All Odds’ (Joel Montague) can’t help but warm the cockles of this 80s kid; all the Queen numbers (Freddie Love getting it just right); the lack of Bono…. Nostalgia certainly plays its part in the entertainment value but its political messaging, however you receive it, remains all too powerfully pertinent.

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