Wednesday 27th February 2019 at the Phoenix Theatre, London.
Come From Away is first and foremost an excellent piece of ensemble theatre. The show doesn’t fuss with multiple sets or big costume changes and it completely bypasses the formulaic approach found in many musicals. It’s 1hr 40 with no interval, which allows the swirling action and emotive momentum of the piece to play out uninterrupted in a way which makes the ensemble effort even more impressive. This feels like a more sophisticated and fresh take on modern musical theatre which follows in the footsteps of Caroline, or Change in stepping away from high gloss and production values and moving instead towards real drama and important stories told alongside and through music.
The show looks at stunning recent history to tell personal stories of a small number of the 6,500 passengers left stranded in Gander, Newfoundland in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks which saw American Airspace closed for days. It’s easy to see why audiences have already taken this show to their hearts, moved by the subject matter and the show’s ability to show both the pain and the humanity of the situation.
This could have been a truly and wholly dire situation for those passengers had they not found themselves landed (literally) within a community of people so thoroughly good and eager to help. It’s like watching Huffpost news stories play out on stage; disaster strikes but communities pitch in and do what needs to be done in heartwarming displays of support for strangers. The show also finds humour and liveliness wherever it can, with the passengers swiftly accepted into the folds of a community doubled in size in the space of a few hours.
The show features a wonderfully energetic cast who remain on stage throughout for the most part, with each cast member taking roles as passengers as well as the Gander inhabitants. There’s the Gander matriarch figure Beulah (a likeable and relatable Jenna Boyd) who takes on the salt-of-the-earth organiser role, the well-meaning Claude (Clive Carter) who finds himself juggling both a local bus driver strike and this somewhat more pressing issue alongside Oz (a comically irate Harry Morrison), the belligerent bus driver who sees sense pretty quickly.
Then there’s Bonnie (played with superb warmth and humour by Mary Doherty), the animal-lover with an unshakeable resolve and hunky authority figure Bob (Nathaniel Campbell). Perhaps best of the bunch though is the adorable young reporter Janice (Emma Salvo) who finds herself having the most extreme first day on the job imaginable and who only becomes increasingly endearing as the story evolves.
Amongst the bewildered passengers we find Beverley, the capable pilot of the grounded passenger plane and a woman who happened to be the first female pilot to fly such aircraft. Rachel Tucker takes the role and delivers a strong performance both dramatically and vocally as she tells her life story of growing up as a young woman facing endless corridors of NO until she managed to live her dream as a pilot. But Beverley’s is not the only heavily emotive story here, as passenger Hannah (Cat Simmons) faces the most terrifying of waits and it’s through Hannah’s narrative that Director Christopher Ashley demonstrates some real dramatic power.
Bickering couple Kevin J (Andrew Hume) and Kevin T (David Shannon) provide some great comedy and also something of a realist antidote to the doe-eyes of a relationship in the making. It’s no spoiler to say that comically awkward singletons Nick (Robert Hands) and Diane (Helen Hobson) and their coupling up during the course of their extraordinary experience is one of the elements of this production which has won over audiences; finding love in unexpected places remains tear-jerking material.
For me though, I didn’t click with this element of the story, particularly when there’s just a throwaway comment to acknowledge the woeful circumstances surrounding their meeting as they gush about how happy they are to have found one another. The same goes for the celebratory finale which sees the characters telling us their individual outcomes while sharing with us how special Gander is to them. I can see the merit and reason for such warm, fuzzy moments and I can see why people have been invigorated by this light-within-the-darkness-story, but I found it a little difficult to focus on the foregrounded narratives when the fleeting references to such a devastating event in the background kept me rooted in my mental images and accompanying unshakeable sadness.
I clearly was not so moved by the emotive aspects of the show as some, but I will say that I felt a little choked on a few occasions and I am very appreciative of the sensitivity the production displays, particularly when it would have been so easy (and so painful) for them to rely on those images none of us need to physically see to picture. And in fact, by making only brief mention of the backgrounded dark realities, those powerful images are conjured into minds regardless, making the show authentically powerful without being exploitative or basely sensationalistic.
Book, Music and Lyrics are the work of Irene Sankoff and David Hein and the writing and music are very well crafted to support the story being told, even if the script is at times a little heavy-handed and the music doesn’t necessarily cry out for a place in musical greats collections. There are also some important elements, like the sequences about hostility within the ranks left a little under-developed which is a real shame considering how much more could have been done with them.
One of my favourite moments of the show is the opening number Welcome to the Rock, which is bracing and charmingly folk in nature, with rousing stomping and hupping to signal transportation from London to a place far far away. Direction and choreography (Christopher Ashley and Tara Overfield Wilkinson respectively) of such sequences across the show are excellent. I am Here and Me and the Sky are other notable performances, thanks to the brilliant vocal performances from Simmons and Tucker.
There’s absolutely no denying what a beautifully constructed piece of ensemble theatre this is, and it’s never less than impressive to see a stripped back West End production deliver a story with such clarity and uncomplicated power. I’d like to see more musical storytelling like this on West End stages – intensive, layered performances of stories with real substance. Yeah, let’s have more of that.
Come From Away plays at the Phoenix Theatre, London until September 14th 2019 and you can find tickets here.