Just for One Day review – Old Vic, London ★★★★☆

Craige Els (Bob), Abiona Omonua (Amara) and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Review by Carla Rudgyard

We all wish we’d been there, standing amongst the sweaty, screaming crowd of 72,000 exuberant pop fans back in 1985 when iconic artists like Tina Turner, David Bowie and Paul McCartney performed in the worldwide spectacle that was the Live Aid concert. Raising $127 million for Ethiopian famine relief between its two main events, the gargantuan music function united 1.5 billion people in the understanding that the power of pop music could be harnessed for good. Luckily, you might not need a time machine to experience a small shock of the electric concert that rocked the world in ‘85 because, until the 30th March, the Old Vic’s powerful new jukebox musical retelling is here to show you just how Bob Geldof and the founders of Band Aid orchestrated a vast civil moment for change.

Directed by Luke Sheppard, this musical flashback is not shy of iconic tunes. You can expect to hear the works of Queen, Bowie, Diana Ross and more, that is, if the audience around you aren’t singing along too loudly. Stacked tall with classics, this show has some pretty big shoes to fill, but stunningly, what stands out most is the entire cast of 26 and their fantastic vocals, which revamp golden oldies with their array of unique voices.

Abiona Omonua (Amara), Craige Els (Bob) and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Written by John O’Farrell, the plot follows Amara (Abiona Omonua), a Red Cross aid worker in Ethiopia during the 1980’s famine alongside a realistic Bob Geldof (Craige Els) and his reaction to the humanitarian disaster. From here, we witness the creation of Band Aid’s charity single: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. It’s not all songs and solutions though. Amara’s matter of fact perspective brings to light the obsolete impact of the song’s aid due to the lack of reliable infrastructure in Ethiopia during the corrupt military dictatorship. It’s this slice of realism that brings Bob to the realisation that a far larger movement is needed to make a dent in the systemic corruption taking place, and hence, the creation of Live Aid.

The tale of a group of wealthy musical all-stars giving philanthropism a go is always going to come hand in hand with saviorism, but this show is at the very least, self aware. Modern characters like Jemma (Naomi Katiyo) look back on the events of ‘85 and dissect the problems of “a load of white guys taking a day off from snorting cocaine to help Africa”. Amara then provides us with a pragmatic perspective of what it’s like on the ground in Ethiopia, so the savourism is somewhat sidestepped. It’s because of this plot and Abiona Omonua’s captivating performance that we see both sides of the story.

Ashley Campbell (Jim), Danielle Steers (Marsha) and the Company in Just For One Day at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

But the story isn’t truly what I left thinking about. Ultimately, the plot is a vehicle for the songs. At points, it’s cheesy. There’s characters with ‘normal’ names, who have ‘normal’ jobs and ‘normal’ lives, and then Band Aid miraculously makes them realise that ‘everyone has the power to make a difference’. And then they fall in love (obviously). It’s not these cliché tales that make an impact, It’s the musical performances, and the fantastic arrangement of them (Matthew Brind) that will leave you smiling. Most notable was Omonua’s powerful performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, Tamara Tare’s energetic ‘King of Rock’ rap, and the entire cast for their electric delivery of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which exploded with colour from the 50 or so lights brilliantly mounted on-stage (Soutra Gilmour, Howard Hudson) that gave the feeling of a huge, atmospheric concert. At points, the music is a burst of pitch-perfect power, and other times, it’s a cushion of accompaniment designed to support what’s happening in the scene.

Unexpectedly, there’s some original work too, with Margaret Thatcher (Julie Atherton) hashing out some bars in a number reminiscent of ‘You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton, before a quick dance battle over VAT against Bob Geldof (it was as bizarre as it sounds). I never thought I’d say it, but I wish there was more of Thatcher, as Julie Atherton’s hilarious portrayal left the audience creasing.

So, whether or not you were there for the original Live Aid, or you simply wish you were, this show might be just the right dose of feel-good nostalgia for you. It’s a performance that will reignite your love for music, and reinstate your faith in humanity.

Just for One Day is at the Old Vic, London until 30 March