The Theatreguide.London Review
Phoenix Theatre 2019 - 2020; 2021
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.
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