Saturday 13 July 1985…

 Think back, what were you doing? Ok under 45’s you’re excused, but the rest of you will almost certainly recall what was going down at Wembley Stadium on that day. A concert with the strap line to ‘feed the world’, which in reality was one country in Africa, going through a horrible and devastating famine, all brought to light by the BBC’s Michael Buerk reporting from the ground in Ethiopia. Meanwhile in Weston-Super-Mare, passionate teenager Suzanne 1985 (Hope Kenna) was heading off to London with her cynical would-be boyfriend Tim (Joe Edgar) to join the crowd of 72,000 for a music event that will be remembered for educating and galvanising people across the globe, raising over £100 million. John O’Farrell’s Just For One Day, The Live Aid Musical (Old Vic) attempts to recreate how it all came about. Imagine watching a Top of the Pops 1980’s special, performed by a diverse company of 26 groovy, hip performers, bringing their own interpretation to some iconic songs, though O’Farrell does make space for criticism so as not to wallow solely in syrupy nostalgia. For (Sir) Bob Geldof (Craige Els), it plays out like a eulogy, despite recent media reports saying he is sick of talking about it – “It drives me f***ing mad.”

The rewriting of history always gives me the heebie-jeebies, that need to continually offer a contemporary view of historical events, represented here by Gemma (Naomi Katiyo), a likeable and feisty twenty-something. It sits uneasily in what is essentially a two-and-a-half-hour tribute gig with a lean narrative in which Suzanne 2024 (Jackie Clune) reminisces on how it changed her life. A year earlier she was selling as many copies as she could of the Band Aid single, Do They Know It’s Christmas?, written by Geldof and Midge Ure. It sold three million copies in the UK in just over a month and highlighted the iconoclastic energy and character of Bob and his mates, sarcastically described by Gemma as “old white guys taking a day off from snorting cocaine.” The show is not about impersonation but Els captures the drive and obsession in his single-minded portrayal of a man who “swears a lot.” That he f***ing did probably got him the results he wanted though he swears that he didn’t tell the public to “give me the f***ing money!” His meeting with Margaret Thatcher (Julie Atherton) is amusing but parodistic and as a result those unfamiliar with the ‘Iron Lady’ may come away thinking she was an elocutionary joke. When she sang I’m Still Standing, knowing her two terms had seen the Falklands War, soaring unemployment and widespread industrial action which included the extremely bitter and divisive miners’ strike, I winced at the fatuousness. A mere footnote when compared to Live Aid apparently.

Another weakness of what is otherwise banging entertainment – the live band belt out the music – is the perfunctory depiction of aid work. Abiona Omonua’s Amara, a Red Cross worker – who sings a fantastic version of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, against a backdrop of intense orange light symbolising the heat and desolation – appears intermittently to remind Bob, and us, that in real life their work is almost impossible to carry out, due to corruption and a broken system. Although O’Farrell is careful not to say so, the implication is clear, the ‘white saviour’ syndrome of largesse and problem solving is often based on heartfelt but naïve compassion.

Nevertheless, Live Aid, was a sixteen-hour concert that ran simultaneously in London and Philadelphia, featuring some of the biggest names in rock and pop music of the time. If you thought the UK single was cheesy the US version, We Are the World, had soufflé verses and a Welsh Rarebit chorus. And whatever your misgivings about the politics and the pejorative and patronising image of Africa, you can’t help but warm to a company of performers and musicians who do all they can to make this a pulsating and energising theatrical experience. It reaches a thumping climax with a stunning version of Bohemian Rhapsody, sung by Freddie Love, and the moment Paul McCartney’s microphone malfunctions leading to a singalong of Let It Be. Director Luke Sheppard goes for musical broke and on that score he has a hit, leading to an inevitable standing ovation.

Continuing the musical theme, The Rocket Man (Adelphi Theatre), is a tribute act to another knight of the realm, Sir Elton John, who also sang at Live Aid, encountering the same technical difficulties as Sir Paul McCartney. Jimmy Love as Elton is terrific, capturing the flamboyance, the sound and tinkling of the keys, so good in fact that you close your eyes and think you’re at one of Elton’s farewell concerts celebrating with all his hits. Love loves Elton, that is clear, so we also get an insight into Elton’s life, how he and Bernie Taupin hooked up to produce those iconic songs. The band – Kevin Armstrong (Bass Guitar), Matthew Angelo  (Guitar), Steve Mackrill (Drums) and Tom Stevens (Keyboard) are also high quality as are the backing vocals of Tara Marie Armstrong. The songs are memorable and great to sing along to, which of course the audience found hard to resist. Quite a few will remain in the pantheon of best pop songs.

Love’s patter is witty, obviously outrageous when you consider the life Elton has led, and his rapport with the audience is like that of a stand-up comedian. This is a tribute act that delivers first class entertainment and as it continues to tour will play to packed houses, probably because, apart from one planned concert in Arlington USA, Sir Elton is due to stop performing live after this year. Hasn’t he said that before? If he does and Elton is no longer standing, Love can be a top rate substitute Rocket Man.

Samuel Takes A Break…in Male Dungeon No.5 After a Long but Generally Successful Day of Tours (Yard Theatre) is easily the best thing I’ve seen in years. Samuel is a tour guide at a former colonial castle, a place where slaves were held before transportation.

It’s 2019, Ghana’s Year of Return: a hugely important date, both the 400-year anniversary of the start of the slave trade and the year that Ghana started encouraging the African diaspora from England, America and other countries to return to (and crucially, invest in) their motherland. But how much are these tourists really connected to this historic site? The play pulls no punches in its depiction of both the horrors of slavery and the disparate experiences of diaspora communities and nationals – black British and African American tourists are constantly lecturing Samuel on the way that he “should be” behaving. All four cast members fire off on all cylinders, but Fode Simbo is extraordinary in what he’s able to convey to the audience in the notoriously constricting context of a service job, where the customer is always right and money doesn’t smell.

This play presents the haunted house as a space that is brought to life by the entrant’s own baggage and experiences – this is the first play I’ve seen in a really long time that trusted its audience to bring the necessary cultural context to get the point. An unusually focused and sharp piece of theatre that succeeds even when it is didactic – more plays should follow its lead.…

Sadler’s Wells should be congratulated for its commitment to presenting Pina Bausch’s work consistently since 1982. Nelken means carnations, and this is an exemplary Bausch masterpiece played out on a stage covered with 8000 of these silk flowers. The work is an unmissable tour de force. There is no doubt that Bausch furrowed a path that inspired and revolutionised contemporary dance. Her work embraces the wonder, joy and despair of humanity, oscillating between emotions with a drama and ease that testifies to the conflicting behaviours, idiosyncrasies and tendencies that ultimately characterise all of us and what it means to be human.

Focusing on the pathos and sentiment of such common denominators is a Bausch hallmark that universalises her work’s appeal and is as democratic as her insistence that everything can be dance. The amazing cast herald from far and wide, and their individualities as they play out Bausch’s emotional spectrum sing out loud and clear. This ensures that we empathise and leave empowered by performances that reinforce how our fragilities are as important as our strengths in making each of us who we are. It ends this evening so go and be inspired.

When a golden wedding anniversary reunites the Randolph family on the eve of World War II, Dora and Charles must come to terms with the adults their children have become. Their children, meanwhile, have memories of the family that are tainted and present a challenge in every way. As the weekend’s celebrations unfold, the family differences reveal themselves leading to a tidal wave of emotions.

Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus (National Theatre) is a surprisingly fun and enjoyable play on an ingenious set by Frankie Bradshaw that is like an optical illusion, giving the impression of a large family house. Lindsay Duncan plays the matriarch and she relishes her role of task mistress giving instructions eliciting lots of laughs at her haughty manner. The large cast representing several generations of the family and their staff impress with their portrayals and interactions and director Emily Burns skilfully steers a path between overdoing the reflection juxtaposed with the looming threat of what the war will bring following the horrors from the earlier one. Even though the play is set almost a century ago it feels very modern, occupied as they are with the universal and timeless worries and concerns of what makes for a good and functional family unit. As the play ended it felt like it was posing the question – has the institution of family changed or eroded much in more recent times? Well worth seeing.

Just for One Day’ –

Rocket Man – on tour –

Samuel Takes a Break’ –

Nelken –

Dear Octopus –

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