Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre: ‘a story of acceptance, friendship, and generosity that is more than needed’
Carleigh Nicholls reviews Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre, a musical chronicling the story of a small Canadian town that welcomed seven thousand stranded airline passengers after 9/11.
A feel-good musical about 9/11? At first glance this idea seems counter-intuitive, but Come From Away works remarkably well because of its simple sincerity and genuine earnestness. This musical tells the true story of the thirty‑eight planes that were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland and the Canadian community that enthusiastically welcomed them after the attacks on September 11, 2001. After successful runs throughout North America, this lively musical, directed by Christopher Ashley, can now be seen in London.
Creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein have written a truly tasteful and nuanced work. Clocking in at an hour and forty minutes without an interval, the book is tight and well composed. While the songs themselves are not always the most memorable, the maritime tunes are pleasant to listen to, and the opening song “Welcome to the Rock” proves to be an earworm. As Hein has noted, music is in Newfoundland’s DNA, and the creators have clearly been inspired by Gander’s traditional folk music with its Celtic and maritime sounds.
The characters and their stories are based on real people, and the cast brings great heart to their parts. They play multiple roles as both locals and passengers, each with a different accent and back story. As Sankoff and Hein note in the programme, this interchanging of roles is intentional, reminding audience members that any one of us could need help one day. The cast must be commended for the rapidity of the scene changes. Kelly Devine’s clever staging allows for quick transitions between places and scenes. Beowulf Boritt has designed a somewhat bare stage with wooden paneling. However, cast members utilize chairs and props to quickly move from one location to another. The chair choreography is rather impressive.
What makes this musical so successful is its unique focus. Rather than concentrating on New York or the U.S. government, it looks at individual perspectives on the periphery of this catastrophic and historic event. The audience gets to experience the anger, confusion, fear and humour of both the passengers and locals, which creates a relatable experience. We first witness the Gander locals as they learn about the attacks. Some are having a coffee at Tim Horton’s, whilst others are on their way to work. Most people who are old enough have a similar memory—the moment they heard about 9/11—so this inclusion is important. We then see the frightened passengers on the planes, trapped with no concrete news or access to their families and friends. Sankoff and Hein remind audiences that large events are made up of individual experiences.
Indeed, this story is powerful because of its emphasis on the importance of individual actions and small deeds. As Gander and the adjacent communities prepare for the influx of passengers, the logistics prove to be complicated. There are problems with meal preparation, bed spaces, large scale refrigeration, and language barriers. Will the school have enough tampons? These small details are important and exemplify how the town comes together to help those in need. A story that especially strikes an emotional chord is that of Bonnie (Mary Doherty) the S.P.C.A. worker who forces her way into the cargo compartment of the stranded planes to take care of the trapped animals.
The cast generally does a good job with the tough Newfie accents. Switching from one role to the next, the change in accents is impressive. Clive Carter plays Claude the Mayor of Gander. His accent is particularly convincing, and he provides a warm and reassuring presence on stage. Rachel Tucker portrays Beverley, the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft, and her ballad “Me and the Sky” is beautiful. Robert Hands and Helen Hobson take part in a sweet and awkward romance as Nick and Diane, while Jenna Boyd as Beulah and Cat Simmons as Hannah showcase a heartwarming friendship.
At the performance I attended, the audience was in rapture by the end with a number of people in tears. Accounts on social media confirm that this is a nightly response: this musical is definitely a crowd pleaser. Considering the uncertain political times we currently live in, a story of acceptance, friendship, and generosity is more than needed. Indeed, Come From Away leaves the audience with the joyful feeling that we are all “welcome to the rock.”
Come From Away will be playing at the Phoenix Theatre until September 14, 2019.
Production and feature photograph credit Matthew Murphy.