Tuesday 26 February 2019

Come From Away

Phoenix Theatre, London
Wednesday 20th February, 2019, matinee

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away”

Nearly a year ago to the day we visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 memorial in New York. Never had I felt the magnitude of emotion I felt that day. From the physicality of land and space around the memorial, to the simple but deeply touching gesture of placing a single white rose upon the names of victims on their birthdays, it is a place of tranquillity, reflection and awful sorrow. The museum I found to be painfully profound and I’m ashamed to admit that the gut-wrenching details of some of the exhibits defeated me and I had to excuse myself. The events of September 11th 2001 are etched in the minds of a nation – a world – and while it may be the most horrific atrocity to occur in the West in my living memory, it also brought out the best in humanity – something which Irene Sankoff and David Hein home in on in their life-affirming musical, Come From Away.

Following the attacks, 7,000 passengers had their planes diverted to a small Newfoundland airport, nearly doubling the island’s population in the space of a morning. The musical follows the townspeople as they do all they can to accommodate the panic-stricken ‘come from aways’, while also focusing on the personal losses of those aboard the diverted planes and the life-long friendships formed over those fateful five days north of the border. 

Suspicions, cultural differences, and even language barriers are eventually put to one side as the islanders and the plane people unite in a time of hardship and uncertainty. I got goosebumps during a scene where a Newfoundland bus driver finally reassures an African family using passages from the bible and the universal numbering system of verses to communicate. Likewise, the bond between local teacher, Beulah, and Hannah, whose son is an NYC firefighter and currently missing, is forged via a shared fondness for terrible jokes. Humour. Faith. Love. These universal human traits are shown to abide within the darkest moments.

One of the musical’s most charming through-lines is that of awkward British businessman, Nick, and Diane, a single mother from Texas whose instant connection aboard their stranded plane blossoms into a tender and hesitant relationship. It’s a romance between two very ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and one can’t help but feel touched by Diane’s survivors-guilt when admitting she feels a kind of remorse that something so special, that had brought her so much happiness, could transpire out of something so awful. Moreover, Sankoff and Hein don’t shy away from the extreme fear and paranoia that dogged communities in the aftermath of the attacks. A Muslim passenger is viewed with unwarranted suspicion by his fellow travellers and is forced to undergo a humiliating strip-search before being allowed to re-board his plane.

However, on the whole, Come From Away is a story of togetherness, highlighted in the local bar ‘Screech In’, in which several of the plane people are bestowed with full Islander status – after downing shots and kissing a freshly caught fish in a booze-fuelled initiation ritual. This rustic traditionalism is captured in Sankoff and Hein’s folky music; quaint yet never twee, it effuses a sense of wilderness entwined with the serene harmonies brought about by collective familiarity. Stand out numbers include the lilting paean to momentary happiness, ‘Stop The World’, Hannah’s desperation to protect her child in ‘I Am Here’, and pilot, Beverley’s triumphant love-letter to flight, ‘Me and the Sky’.

Beowulf Boritt’s set invites us into the rural haven of Gander. Wood panelling and a landscape of lofty trees provide the backdrop to director Christopher Ashley’s deceptively simple staging. The minute the plane people land we are plunged into a world of swirling perpetual motion wherein those still, quiet moments of reflection are illuminated. Ashley directs a faultless cast in an array of roles in which actors switch from playing Newfoundlanders to plane people at the drop of a hat. In a case of art imitating life, the piece zips along in breathless fashion, meaning our time in Gander is short but sweet.

Ultimately, Come From Away is so much more than the sum of its parts. The reaction of the audience when we saw it was overwhelmingly positive and the auditorium was aflood with emotion. At a time where cynicism, bigotry and selfishness seem to reign supreme, Sankoff, Hein, Ashley and, most importantly, those Newfoundland islanders that agreed to share their stories have restored my faith in humanity.

Come From Away is currently booking at the Phoenix Theatre until 14th September, 2019.
The cast of Come From Away.
Credit: Matthew Murphy.

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