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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Come From Away
Phoenix Theatre   Winter 2019 -

Come From Away is a warm, cheerful, sprightly, tuneful and thoroughly engaging musical. It is a happily-ever-after fairy tale that just happens to be true.

The murderous plane hijackings of September 11, 2001 led to the grounding of all air traffic in, from and to the United States. Its location in eastern Canada made the little-used airport in Gander, Newfoundland the best alternative for incoming transatlantic flights, and the field that normally handled a handful of flights a day suddenly had 38 filled jets on its tarmac, while the town with a population of 9000 was faced with 7000 unwilling visitors.

Apparently – and a programme note assures us that everything in the musical is based on fact – the Newfoundlanders handled the challenge with an efficiency and practicality exceeded only by their generosity.

Beds, food and changes of clothing were found, showers, medical care and telephones arranged, and more than could be expected was done for those 'come from away,' all without accepting any payment and with a grace and openness of spirit that speak well of humanity.

The musical's creators (book, music and lyrics), Irene Sankoff and David Hein, visited Gander on the occasion of the joyous tenth anniversary reunion of townies and travellers, and collected some of their stories, setting them to music that has an appropriately Celtic-Canadian Folk flavour.

The same programme note acknowledges that some characters are combined and some stories tweaked for dramatic clarity, but that every named person we meet is based on a real person of that name, and every story essentially true. A cast of twelve each play three or four townies and three or four travellers, with the script and Christopher Ashley's direction keeping everything clear.

Among those who stand out are Gander's mayor, played by Clive Carter as the kind of man who just gets on with doing the right thing because no alternative would occur to him, mother-of-a-fireman Beulah Cooper (Jenna Boyd), who does what she could to comfort and distract the mother of a New York fireman desperately seeking word he is all right, and animal shelter operator Bonnie Harris (Mary Doherty), who lets others deal with the humans while she makes sure the pets in the various airplane holds aren't forgotten.

Among the passengers, we zero in on Englishman Nick (Robert Hands) and Texan Diane (Helen Hobson), middle-aged strangers who meet cute and fall into a romance straight out of a teenage date movie (In real life they're still married); the gay couple Kevin and Kevin (Jonathan Andrew Hume and David Shannon) who, in a scene straight out of Little Britain, are surprised to discover they're not the only gays in the village; and Hannah (Cat Simmons), worried mother of the New York fireman.

The songs by Sankoff and Hein may not have any obvious hits among them – the most sustained set pieces are a lovely sequence built on the dovetailing prayers and hymns of characters of different faiths, and the slightly irrelevant song of an airline pilot about her love of flying. But they keep things lively and give the show a slightly exotic backwoods Canada flavour, as do Kelly Devine's cheerfully stomping clog-style dances.

(You might in some of the harmonies catch echoes of Les Miz and of Sondheim's Sunday In The Park.)

If there is one nit-picking criticism to make of Come From Away it lies in the creators' decision to make the whole thing so rosy and positive – the only touches of darkness lie in that worried mother and in a couple whose relationship can't survive the stress.

The musical could have handled a little more seriousness, and possibly been stronger for it. But that is asking the show to be what it didn't set out to be.

Come From Away delivers exactly what it promises – a reminder of how very special very ordinary people can be, all in a tuneful and thoroughly entertaining package.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Come From Away - Phoenix Theatre 2019