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14 February 2024

Live Aid musical Just For One Day: sanctimony and second-rate songs

Here are pop stars as cherubim and seraphim. Here is Ultravox belted out as if it was the Hallelulah chorus.

By Rachel Cooke

Ah, 1985. I remember it well. It was the summer of my O levels. By the time Live Aid took place on July 13 at Wembley in London and the John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, I’d been listlessly hanging about at home for weeks. The boyfriend for whom I was desperate had not, alas, materialised. I’d read Jeanette Winterson’s hot new novel, Oranges Are Not Only the Fruit; I’d listened to The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder so often I was almost (but not quite) bored of it. What else was I going to do at this point, but give myself up to every last moment of Bob Geldof’s charity extravaganza? In public, I disdained it. In private, I jiggled slightly to Status Quo and hated myself. 

Just For One Day, the Old Vic’s new musical show about Live Aid, does its best to acknowledge the ambivalence many people had, even at the time, for a gig which raised an awful lot of money for those affected by famine in east Africa but didn’t really change anything permanently (not even the un-coolness of Phil Collins, for all that he dashed by Concorde from the UK to the US, the better that he could play both stages). One of its framing devices, after all, is a character called Jemma (Naomi Katiyo), a present day 20-something who denounces Geldof (Craige Els) as a white saviour (Live Aid, she says, was just a load of “white guys taking a day off from snorting cocaine”). 

But it’s no good. Made in partnership with The Band Aid Charitable Trust, whose income from this production will go directly to help fund its ongoing activities in Ethiopia, Just For One Day can in the end only clap its hands and cheer ecstatically. Everything that happened on the day is presented as close to miraculous. If Bob is very grumpy (“it was a fookin’ nightmare”), he also wears a cassock of purest denim. Here are pop stars as cherubim and seraphim. Here is Dancing With Tears In my Eyes by Ultravox belted out as if it was the Hallelujah chorus. We are the world, we are the children. We are the keepers of such holy relics of the Eighties as Freddie Mercury’s vest, David Bowie’s shoulder pads, and Midge Ure’s moustache (Phil Collins, you will recall, did not require a jacket). 

On the plus side, impersonations are kept to a minimum. Tony Hadley, Sting and other, er, luminaries are off stage. Only Geldof, Ure (Jack Shalloo), Live Aid’s promoter Harvey Goldsmith (Joel Montague) and (yes) Margaret Thatcher – a very funny and adept turn by Julie Atherton – appear as characters. Otherwise, the story is told mostly through the eyes of “real” people: the sixth former, Suzanne (Jackie Clune in 2024/Hope Kenna in 1985), who was/is in the crowd at Wembley; Jim (Ashley Campbell) and Marsha (Danielle Steers), who worked on the event behind the scenes. 

On the downside, this is yet another jukebox musical, with the inflationary difference (a sign of the times!) that the songs come from across a decade (and beyond, in the case of The Beatles), rather than from the back catalogue of one artist. How you’re likely to feel about this depends on two things. First, you need a high tolerance for a certain kind of high intensity, high vibrato, Adele-inflected, TV talent show-type singing. You need, in other words, not to mind that the chorus gives Bowie’s Heroes a soppy The Road Less Travelled vibemore self-help than arthouse anthem (though to be fair, when they gambolled in their Spandau-inspired costumes to The Police’s Message A Bottle, I muted my own silent SOS, because it sounded quite good). 

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Second, you need to like an awful lot of second-rate songs, for this is (mostly) the hits of the Eighties we’re talking about. Personally, I like quite a lot of second-rate songs. Just ask my husband. These days, I’m all about yacht rock, Toto a speciality. But even I draw the line at Bryan Adams. Drive by The Cars triggers me. Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now), one of Phil Collins’ hits, continues to be a crime against brackets. (I should add that the music is deafeningly, almost painfully, loud throughout.)

In my seat in the middle of a row, I looked around at the audience. It was clearly enraptured – this production, directed by Luke Sheppard, is going to be a hit with the public, if not with the critics – but at first, I couldn’t quite work out why. Apart from anything else, lots of those I could see were not even alive in 1985. In the face of what’s happening in Gaza, the show’s message about togetherness, change and, er, sustainable development seemed more than a bit hokey. 

Only then it hit me. John O’Farrell, who wrote the book, has delivered a masterstroke with his preachy aid worker Amara (Abiona Omonua) and his indy-music loving Tim, who goes to Live Aid reluctantly (capitalism!), and yet grows up to be a banker (boo!). Yes, it’s true that there’s no jeopardy here. We know the stars will turn up to record Do They Know It’s Christmas? (most of the first half of the show is about this single), just as we know Paul McCartney’s broken link at Wembley will be quickly fixed. But there’s also – genius! – something for everyone when it comes to what I shall call Attitudes. 

The severe, occasionally sanctimonious voices of 2023 will give millennials and others younger than them permission fully to enjoy Brian May’s big guitar solo and the histrionics of Vienna, and meanwhile, the rest of us – the ancients – can enjoy fuming quietly. Okay, it’s true that we didn’t know much about diversity and sustainability back then; we were stupid and gauche and had only four TV channels. But on the other hand, at least we didn’t go around ruthlessly policing the views of people older than us like so many tyro McCarthyites. To the sound – uh oh, more brackets – of Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me), I tapped my toe with utmost vigour and indignation.

[See also: Netflix’s One Day is a romcom without any chemistry]

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