“Just for One Day” at the Old Vic

Mark Shenton on the South Bank
14 February 2024

Jukebox musicals have become the lazy bane – or easy balm, depending on your point of view – of the commercial theatre. In a world where familiarity breeds both content and contented audiences, Just for One Day is the ultimate trip down memory lane for anyone who was caught up in Live Aid on 13 July 1985 – either in person at London’s Wembley Stadium or Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium or as part of a global television audience of nearly 2 billion viewers in 150 countries (nearly 40% of the world’s population), in the biggest simultaneous transatlantic pop concert of the last century, and probably of all time. (And if you weren’t alive then or it somehow passed you by, Just for One Day is a living 3D Wikipedia entry to show you what you missed.)


Tamara Tare and Olly Dobson.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

In a pre-Internet age, it was an astonishing logistical as well as creative achievement, harnessing the star power and emotional force of some of the most iconic pop names of the time (many of whom, like Queen or Tina Turner, would go on to be immortalized in their own jukebox shows, or write brand-new musicals like Elton John, Sting, David Bowie, U2, and Phil Collins). In the immediate wake of it, an estimated £150 million was raised for Ethiopian famine relief; but it also served a larger purpose, dramatically increasing awareness too, of the scourge of hunger.

The event may have been staged just for one day, but it has now lived on in the collective memory for nearly four decades. And the new show that now celebrates it so vividly and vibrantly is surely going to run a whole lot longer than just one day, a month, or even a year. Its limited-run Old Vic premiere is only the start of its likely journey, with Jamie Wilson and a large team of West End’s biggest producers already on board to take it further. As with Live Aid itself, this is going to have a long reach.

It is, in brief, a smash hit that’s just full to bursting with them! John O’Farrell, currently represented in the West End by his book for Mrs Doubtfire, may have literally done a “by numbers” job of folding a great song stack into telling the story of Live Aid, from its first conception by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure as the Christmas 1984 Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to its evolution into a global live concert, but the book serves an admirable and involving anchor to support that trajectory.

It’s not just a live show full of tribute acts and impersonations, though we do get lively, fully committed droll impressions of Geldof himself (Craige Els), Midge Ure (Jack Shalloo), and producer Harvey Goldsmith (Joel Montague) as well as a heavily and heartedly caricatured prime minister Margaret Thatcher (the very funny Julie Atherton). But the show is also bursting with its own highly individual talents who bring warmth and wit to populate some concert-goers, like the wonderful Jackie Clune – long one of the best pop-theatre voices around, as well as a terrific actor.

As well as humanizing and containing a big story by establishing it within a relatable format, the show also does a thrilling job of remembering and presenting the hit soundtrack, with a superb live six-piece band led by Patrick Hurley, perched on an upper platform on the stage itself. Exemplary sound by Gareth Owen – an expert in rock shows – ensures it is never deafening but full of clarity. So are the video and animation contributions of Andrzej Goulding, giving depth and context to the mostly bare, anonymous environment created by designer Soutra Gilmour. It is all stitched together by director Luke Sheppard with craft, care, and flair.

The result is the first sure-fire musical hit of 2024.