Review: Come From Away – The Phoenix Theatre, London

Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, Musical Staging by Kelly Devine, Music Supervision by Ian Eisendrath.

September 11th, a moment in history that is embedded into the zeitgeist of American history. The event was so significant that it rippled throughout the world. The day the (arguably) most powerful country in the world was attacked on its home shore. So much occurred during 9/11 that its not unbelievable that many don’t know the stories outside of the New York City attacks, Come From Away seeks to rectify that by telling the story of those planes diverted from the Big Apple into Canada to a town called Gander in Newfoundland (If you’re wondering about the name, it used to be a British colony, a country that also has a love for weird named places). In my mind, the question was how well a musical about the 9/11 attacks featuring stories from Canada on a topic that shook the core of American society can translate to those across the pond. The answer, judging on their Olivier Award for Best New Musical, is, well, very!

When I first visited New York City with my friend and visited Ground Zero, it was extremely moving just to see the vast hole that was left, both literal and figurative, by the attacks on 9/11. Now, we could debate the loss of life on 9/11 versus the loss of life in the US’ retaliation, but that’s for another blog. So when one makes a musical on the topic of 9/11, it obviously is going to raise eyebrows.
However, the thing I loved best about Come From Away was that it simply wasn’t another patriotic American orgasm the likes of which Trump would cry at through his tanned little fingers while petting his bald eagle (not a euphemism). Instead, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s ground-breaking musical is about the best of humanity from a country whose reputation is built on the kindness of its citizens; compassion, acceptance, understanding and love are the themes of this show, not the terror and fearmongering that came from the event itself.

The story of Come From Away depicts the tale of how 10,000 residents of the Newfoundland town of Gander welcomed over 6,500 strangers into their lives for five days when 38 planes were diverted during 9/11. These ordinary people were caught up in extraordinary circumstances and rose to the occasion without so much as a blink of an eye. The task was no mere feat, as the show depicts. Not only did these citizens have to provide food and shelter, the people on the planes included different religious dietary needs, pregnancy needs, clothing, bare essentials and so on – not to mention the animals that were on board of the planes that needed medicine or care, such as Bobo, the pregnant chimpanzee.

Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design is simple, rustic and effective; a wooden, forest-like feel that reflects the remote outskirts of Newfoundland’s town of Gander, complete with hidden doors in the back wall and stumps that just hide the band – but more on them later. The rest of the set comprises of seats for each member of the 12-strong cast and a few tables, all of which mould and flow into the vast array of staging for each story and setting. The set and Howell Binkley’s lighting design allowed for a tantalising shadow effect to peep through the planks of the back of the stage, adding some impressive atmosphere to the scenes.

The cast itself is made up of 12 performers, each portraying the citizens of Gander and the passengers on the planes. Tonight’s show had a few understudies, with the cast comprising Nathanael Campbell (Bob and others), Mary Doherty (Bonnie and others), Robert Hands (Nick, Doug and others), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J, Ali and others), Harry Morrison (Oz and others), David Shannon (Kevin T, Garth and others), Cat Simmons (Hannah and others), Rachel Tucker (Beverley, Annette and others), Chiara Baronti (Standby), Tania Mathurin (Standby), Kirsty Malpass (Standby and Dance Captain) and Alexander McMorran (Standby).

In a time with so much hate and fear running rampant in all sectors of society, this is a much needed show to remind us of the good in humanity.

In my opinion, the part I could applaud the cast for the most was that as an audience member, I was able to clearly follow each characters storylines clearly. The threading of Gander-ites and Come From Aways was superbly written and enacted by the cast and each story presented its own themes and emotions tied to the overall story that was being told.
Whether it was the love story of Hand’s Nick and Baronti’s Diane meeting on the plane and seeing their inevitable across the seas relationship flourish, Hume’s Kevin J and Shannon’s Kevin T’s couple find themselves in the gayest bar in Gander, Simmon’s mother Hannah yearning to find any word of her firefighter son in NYC, Doherty’s Bonnie and her fight to care for all the animals on the planes that landed, Campbell’s Bob finding acceptance and a surprising amount of kindness and lack of prejudice in Gander compared to NYC, or Tucker’s Beverley, the first female pilot for American Airlines, and her show stopping number “Me and the Sky”, with a simple donning of a hat or changing of a jacket, the cast jumped in and out of characters seamlessly and brought the audience along for the ride.
A special mention needs to go to Joel Goldes as the dialect coach for the en pointe accents that under less capable hands could have been laughable or cringeworthy.

Under Christopher Ashley’s direction, the show harnesses the pure basics of performance making in the hands of a professional. What could easily have been a HSC/A-Level performance work with pimply teenagers in all blacks instead is 100-minutes of storytelling of the highest calibre. From the beginning through to the final blackout, the show doesn’t let up. The sheer feat itself is a treasure trove for any performer and I can already tell that on its inevitable AmDram release, will be a favourite for societies everywhere; it could (and should) act as a blueprint on how to create a sense of ensemble.

Credit: Matthew Murphy

I know that I’ve said already the cast consists of 12 performers, but really, it consists of much more, purely through the use of Alan Berry’s band and musical direction. From whistles, harmoniums, accordians, mandolins, bodhrans and the Irish flute, the use of the band is as inspired as Tony Award winning Once. Each member of the band whose equipment wasn’t fixed were allowed their own spotlight to become a part of the story and the show simply would not have work as smoothly without them.

In a time with so much hate and fear running rampant in all sectors of society, this is a much needed show to remind us of the good in humanity. One particular scene which involves three different sets of religion in prayer stood out in particular. Mainly because so much violence is done in the name of religion but also because it showed that all religions are inherently the same and showed the stupidity in killing in the name of it; like children fighting over whose imaginary best friend is cooler.

For me, Come From Away was hyped so much that I expected something at the level of Hamilton, what I got didn’t meet the hype that was given but it gave me something else, 1 hour and 40 seamlessly entertaining minutes to just remind myself of how theatre can use the simplest skills in the most effective ways possible to do what theatre is meant to do, tell an audience a story.

Stin’s Final Thought: Through the eyes of someone with a softer heart, ‘Come From Away’ would provide opportunities to make you cry. I however only teared up through the outcomes of the animal’s stories.

Come From Away recently won the Olivier award for Best New Musical. It’s now playing at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End, Broadway in New York City, Canada’s Toronto, and premiering in Melbourne, Australia this year. Tickets and information can be found below.

Come From Away – International Page

Credit: Matthew Murphy

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