Bono came to London to deliver a show with pride – and unashamedly in the name of love. The man who has dominated arena rock across several continents for the best part of four decades chose “to forsake the stadium for the Palladium”, as he put it, to come on stage without his fellow members of U2 and “to be solo in Soho” – so that he might tell a quiet, unexpectedly intimate story of love and pain.
Even before he walked on – to be backed by a harp, cello and percussionist-cum-musical director – it was clear that this was to be no ordinary show. Among those watching, their phones placed in compulsory locked pouches to ensure a night of unbroken attention, were fellow musicians Noel Gallagher and Brian Eno; past and present comrades in aid and debt relief campaigns Bob Geldof, Richard Curtis and former Labour cabinet minister Douglas Alexander; and the man who managed U2 when they were barely out of their teens: Paul McGuinness.
From the start, Bono signalled that he was aiming for something different. When the audience tried to clap along, he stilled them with a gesture. Only once did he invite them to join him in a chorus (of Sunday Bloody Sunday). This was not to be that kind of show.
Instead, over an hour and three-quarters, he unfurled what he promised would be the story of how his wife, Alison Stewart, had “saved me from myself”. There were repeated declarations of love for her, and yet it was not that relationship that preoccupied Bono. Instead, echoing his bestselling memoir, Surrender, the singer and activist returned again and again to the love he craved but which was never fully spoken: the love of his father.
So yes, Bono told the story of how U2 came together, and there was a brief nod to the usual terrain of rock autobiography – how we wrote the songs – with a visceral account of the gestation of I Will Follow. But the moments that lingered were when Bono turned actor, with no more than two chairs as his set – as he recreated the regular pub conversations with his father, with Bono playing both parts: the needy son and his inexpressive Da, stubbornly refusing to be impressed by his boy’s galloping, world-conquering success.
It was these moments of performance – complemented by brief Bono cameos, as he channelled the voices of a procession of characters from Luciano Pavarotti to Diana, Princess of Wales to the surgeon who operated on his “eccentric heart” when Bono came close to death in 2016 – that made this a genuine piece of theatre rather than merely a rock star’s unplugged set with a few extra talky bits in between. The show, like the book, had a narrative arc and created moments of genuine emotion – not least in the performer himself, who looked close to overwhelmed by the time of the curtain call.
Of course, the whole thing could have looked like hideous self-indulgence, and Bono knew that too. He said that writing a memoir is “preposterous” and that performing it is “a whole other level of navel-gazing”. But he got away with it for at least three reasons.
First, there was just enough humour (and self-awareness) to puncture the pomposity. A brief Tommy Cooper impersonation – surely missing when he did the show on Broadway and in LA – was suitably unstarry enough to be winning.
Second, Stories of Surrender raises some questions that transcend the life and achievements of Bono himself. He wonders about activism. Is it worse for a fabulously rich man to bang on about world poverty – or not to? He wrestled out loud with the pragmatism that made some call him a hypocrite for working closely with, for example, the same George W Bush administration that invaded Iraq. The back cover of Surrender features a scribbled attempt at a subtitle: “Confessions of …”. The words “artist”, “activist” and “arsehole” are all offered, but crossed out, before settling on “actualist”. On stage, Bono defined the word as “People who actually want to get shit done”. And there was a short but candid discussion of an underplayed aspect of Bono’s life and work, namely his Christian faith.
And third, the music, which, of course, made it all work. This show was a reminder of how deeply embedded the songs of U2 are in the folk memory, but they have rarely, if ever, been heard like this. The arrangements were spare, to the point of diffidence – sometimes halting just before the take-off that would delight a stadium crowd. The result was that, in a classic such as With or Without You, the pain, the ache, became unmistakable and new.
When he closed the show by singing, alone, Torna a Surriento, a melody beloved by his late father, the effect was complete. This was a portrait of the artist as a young man, who, no matter that he is now in his 60s, continues to yearn. That fire burns still – and it is unforgettable.