'Just For One Day' review – this Live Aid musical is a welcome blast of rock-fuelled optimism

Read our four-star review of Just For One Day, directed by Luke Sheppard, now in performances at the Old Vic to 30 March.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

In this time of “compassion fatigue”, with an overwhelming number of bad news stories, how do you get people to pay attention to one cause – and believe they can make a difference? That’s the driving idea behind the heartfelt new Live Aid musical Just For One Day, which revisits Bob Geldof bringing together the world’s greatest artists to raise £150 million for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Written by John O’Farrell and directed with rock-star panache by Luke Sheppard, the show guides us through the build-up to that landmark concert on 13 July 1985. We see Geldof watching Michael Buerk’s unforgettable BBC report on the famine, and his wife Paula (the tale’s unseen moral conscience) countering his helpless rage with one simple idea: everyone who visits their house must put £5 in an envelope. It’s a start.

That spurs Geldof into action: first recording the Band Aid single with Midge Ure and a super-group of musicians, then getting the mad idea to hold a one-off concert on two continents simultaneously (Wembley Stadium in London and the John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia), broadcast live to 1.9 billion people in 150 nations.

O’Farrell’s warmly nostalgic script revels in this feel-good accomplishment – with nods to the “ordinary” people behind the scenes, including an undercooked fumbling teen romance – and also anticipates critiques of it, with Gen-Z teen Jemma challenging the narrating Geldof on his blinkered white saviourism.

There’s also a Black British aid worker in Ethiopia, Amara (given steely resolve by Abiona Omonua), who schools the naïve Geldof on the logistical challenges of getting supplies past a military dictatorship and corrupt cartels.

But Just For One Day is generally kind to Geldof: he’s an imperfect hero whose heart is in the right place. That’s in keeping with its uplifting spirit and big, banner central message saying: together, we can do better. Just as Geldof defends his earnestly simplistic “feed the world” lyrics, so the musical jettisons sophistication for a crystal-clear call to action.

It’s also a blisteringly good time, thanks to one of the best back catalogues available to any jukebox musical. Some songs further the plot: Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” soundtracks Geldof’s bid to get his single on the radio; an exhausted Amara sings Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”; and, most hauntingly, Geldof’s horror at witnessing the famine deaths first-hand leads to a stirring rendition of Sting’s “Message in a Bottle”.

In the second half, we get a chance to feel part of the actual concert, thanks to the phenomenal onstage band, Fay Fullerton’s 80s-tastic costumes, Howard Hudson’s thrilling floodlights, and stone-cold classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Matthew Brind’s musical arrangements are fantastic, reinterpreting these familiar songs to make us hear them afresh.

They’re brilliantly performed by a top-notch cast, which includes Craige Els’s enjoyably sweary, cantankerous, impatient but lovable Geldof, and Julie Atherton adding a dash of pure camp as an Elton John-warbling Margaret Thatcher. Joel Montague is excellent as the exasperated promoter Harvey Goldsmith, and there are outstanding vocals from the likes of Jack Shalloo, Olly Dobson, Danielle Steers, Freddie Love and James Hameed.

We recently saw with the post office TV drama how art can reach people in a way that nothing else can. Of course this theatrical paean to the unifying power of music doesn’t solve everything, but it’s still a welcome blast of rock-fuelled optimism.

Just For One Day is at the Old Vic through 30 March. Book Just For One Day tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Just For One Day (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

Originally published on

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