If you were going to write a list of topics about which you couldn’t create a musical, near the top of the list would be the attacks on the World Trade Centre of September 11, 2001. So to not only exist, but to exude joy and hope seems even more unlikely. Come From Away is very real and not only that, it's a theatrical experience that will leave you emotionally drained and with an urge to move to Canada.
Set in Gander, Newfoundland on the morning of and days following 9/11, this small town nearly doubles in population. The US air space was closed for the first time in history and 38 planes carrying 6579 passengers and crew were diverted to Gander airport, a terminal only used to a few flights a day at the time. Over 100 minutes, the story of the ‘plane people’ and their welcoming hosts is told to a soundtrack that beats into your soul and stays there long after you’ve left the theatre.
It’s a story of both the people that arrive, the residents of Gander and how these few days change them. The Canadian writing duo of Irene Sankoff and David Hein wanted to tell the story of thousands of people distilled into a tight group of characters. They managed to hit a perfect balance between the despair of that fateful day and celebration of humanities kindness.
This cast of 12 performers switch characters at breakneck speed, never missed a beat and coped well with the complexity and range of material on show. The struggle of a mother concerned for her son, a New York firefighter, is tempered with the comfort and support she is shown by a Gander resident whose son is also a firefighter. You get to see snippets of a friendship that would warm even the coldest of critics.
It's funny. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry and at Come From Away you’ll do both and love it. The friendly nature of Newfoundland natives is at the heart of what makes this show special, with dialogue and characters based on interviews with real people and their natural humour bleeds through, but nothing is in any way frivolous. When one cast member sits at a desk and imitates President George W Bush, since a much-lampooned leader, giving the "The resolve of our great nation is being tested” speech, the silence was deafening. Seeing George W, not as a caricature but a point of sincerity was eye-opening and reminded the audience of the reality this story is set in.
Musically this ensemble piece ticks all the boxes, carried by a folky beat throughout the constant forward motion of the music and lyrics gives a sense of urgency when pilots are scrambling to land and when the ‘plane people’ are driven to their temporary accommodation in the dead of night. The Catholic song of praise “Make Me Channel Of Your Peace” is used as an anchor for a prayer scene, that begins as the hymn but traverses through to Jewish and Muslim prayers culminating in a beautiful belting chorus reminding us that we’re all equal when we’re scared and when we pray.
This show is about the good that can be done when you open your heart and help, in an increasingly more discordant time it’s worth reminding ourselves that there is good in the world, even when faced with darkness. London was cold on the Monday evening I went to see Come From Away, the whole world seems cold at the moment. This show is a three bar fire of love and kindness that reminds of the good people have the potential to do and how that good can shine like a diamond when placed under pressure.
Come From Away is currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre In London.