Just For One Day review – Live Aid musical rocks in all the right ways

A killer soundtrack accompanies a major moment in music history

Craige Else and the cast of Just for One Day, © Manuel Harlan

It’s hard in this era of internet-fuelled mass media, where a concert in Tokyo can be live-streamed onto a Tadcaster teenager’s TikTok during their school lunch break, just how seismic an event Live Aid was for the globe – a huge feat of musical, and logistical, planning, fuelled by a genuine belief in the power of communal benevolence.

That power sits at the heart of Mrs Doubtfire and Something Rotten! scribe John O’Farrell’s new musical Just For One Day, directed by Luke Sheppard and having its world premiere at the Old Vic. Boasting, in fairness, one of the greatest soundtracks for any musical – including the Beatles, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Ultravox – the show recounts the story of Bob (of the Geldof variety) ended up staging two sold-out concerts across two continents, while also broadcasting them around the world. From the beginnings of Band Aid through to the climax of the night at Live Aid (including McCartney’s famous microphone mishap), O’Farrell retells perhaps one of the greatest initiatives in music history – one that ended up rocking all over the world. 

Given successes like & Juliet, The Little Big Things and What’s New Pussycat?, Sheppard could direct slow moving traffic and still make it look gripping and vivacious, and he achieves something similar here in a high-octane 150-minutes of rock concert joy. What he also understands is how ensemble-led theatre can stir something in an audience – the democratisation of voice, the display of consistent talent across the board. By broadening the focal point, and deciding not to have too many actors going the full Stars in their Eyes and dressing up as the stars that took part in Live Aid (Freddie Mercury, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello et al), the show is consistently arresting, anarchic yet also endearing.

Sheppard is also working with a company of A-grade musical greats – including Danielle Steers as a whirlwind producing force Marsha, Olly Dobson as beleagured lawyer with a killer voice John, Joel Montague as rigorous record producer Harvey Goldsmith, Jack Shalloo, whose rendition of “Vienna” is a bona fide showstopper, as well as Abiona Omonua as Amara, reminding the audience of Live Aid’s underlying humanitarian push in Ethiopia. At the heart of it all is Craige Els’ Bob, 

The creative team includes a whole wad of  Sheppard’s previous collaborators, including designer Soutra Gilmore (a minimalist staging that lets the throngs of bodies do the majority of the work), costume designer Fay Fullerton (employing a tactical restraint with understated costumes gradually transforming as the evening progresses), lighting designer Howard Hudson (going full rock concert with walls of glowing cans, combined with subtler LED strokes), sound designer Gareth Owen (typically excellent, with a subwoofer to make most venues jealous) and video designer Andrzej Goulding, blending analogue filters and contemporary effects to merge the present and the past in pixel form.

Craige Els (Bob), Abiona Omonua (Amara) and the company, © Manuel Harlan

Where the show feels like it needs a small tune-up is O’Farrell’s book – dripping in earnestness yet occasionally alighting on tough themes including accusations of narcissism and hypocrisy – often with cursory abandon. A framing device involving a 21st century youngster “studying history” gives O’Farrell room to interrogate the actions of the 1980s, though it feels slightly too underdeveloped. 

At the end of it all – it’s not hard to imagine this charming the pants off a mainstream theatregoing audience – with tunes to delight and a cockle-warming account of a vastly successful occasion. It might be Just for One Day, but underneath it all is something timeless.