“Welcome to my half-man show,” Bono jokes as he makes his grand entrance onto the London Palladium stage. “This feels somewhat transgressive without my bandmates. But I have permission for one night night only in Soho.”
For anyone who’s ever been to a U2 gig, tonight is a far cry from the theatrical pomposity of their stadium rock shows. Flanked instead by a cellist, a harpist and percussionist/musical director Jacknife Lee, Bono’s ‘Stories Of Surrender’ performance is a stripped-back, immersive journey into the frontman’s recent memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, interspersed with snippets of U2 classics.
While tonight’s event does touch on his missing bandmates – it’s 46 years ago this week that he joined The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. for the first time – the narrative here is more focused on Bono’s life, losses and his own near-death experience. Much like his book, the early part of the show involves the U2 frontman recalling the latter, when his “eccentric heart” nearly burst in 2016 due to a blister on his aorta. But what’s impressive about this one-man show is how Bono actually brings the words on the page to life through his own amusing impressions of the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, his U2 bandmates and his late, nonplussed father Bob Hewson, who he is forever trying to impress.
Bono also paints each scene on stage convincingly with little more than the odd chair and table for props. His tales about sitting with his father and brothers in the Sorrento Lounge of his local pub Finnegans are particularly funny: at one point, he talks up the possibility of writing a song with Pavarotti, only for his Da to brutally shoot down his son’s needy approval.
Pavarotti pops up yet again in a hilarious story about the recording of U2’s 1995 single ‘Miss Sarajevo’, which results in two members of the band hiding from the late tenor like a pair of naughty school kids (Pavarotti had turned up on Bono’s doorstep with a full film crew in tow in a bid to convince the band to play a benefit concert with him in Italy). Incidentally, the two bandmates in question – Clayton and Mullen Jr. – never appeared at the concert, and Bono ended up taking his dad and The Edge along to Italy instead. A chance meeting there with Diana, Princess of Wales sees his stubborn old man’s hard demeanour finally melt, helping to eventually forge a slightly closer bond between father and son.
Music is, of course, ever-present throughout Bono’s journey: he rattles off ‘Out Of Control’ after recalling how the Ramones inspired him to pen his first song from his bedroom. A stirring slow string rendition of ‘With Or Without You’ is then aired to accompany the story of how he fell for his wife Ali Stewart, before a poignant ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is performed to illustrate the band’s recording sessions for their 1983 album ‘War’.
As Bob Geldof listens on in the Palladium audience alongside the likes of Noel Gallagher and Brian Eno, Bono goes on to sing a bombastic snippet of ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ while recalling U2’s 1985 performance at Live Aid. Ironically, the band never got to play the hit at the time because the singer famously overran their set after pulling a fan out of the crowd during ‘Bad’. It was a moment that led U2 to initially believe that they’d “shot themselves in the head”, but in fact had the complete opposite effect.
Elsewhere, Bono’s eye-opening first visit to Africa during the mid-80s famine brings on a stirring snatch of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, while the birth of his first son around the time ‘Desire’ scored the band their first UK Number One sees the frontman roll out his own pared back pop version of the track.
Returning to the Sorrento Lounge, Bono then depicts the heartbreaking scene when his father tells him he has cancer, before the narrative switches to the U2 frontman reliving his dad’s final moments. It brings on a powerful, piano-driven snippet of ‘Beautiful Day’, which sees Bono impressively trading vocals with harpist/keyboardist Gemma Doherty, before he finishes with an emotive take on the operatic 1894 Italian song ‘Torna a Surriento’ as a final tribute to his late father. It’s a stirring end to ‘Stories Of Surrender’, closing the book on this fascinating insight into both Bono’s memoir and mind.