A show-stopping performance that celebrates the very best of humanity and lands in the West End when we need it the most, says GLT’s Keeley Rodgers.
We all remember where we were and what we were doing as the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded and changed the world forever. But what many of us aren’t so familiar with (myself included) is the remarkable set of events that led to thousands of people from around the world coming together on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Until now.
The incredible true story has now been told to millions thanks to the creators of the new musical Come From Away, which has arrived in London having already scooped awards on Broadway.
“Welcome to The Rock”, the island of Newfoundland which saw its population double on September 11 when 7,000 stranded passengers found themselves there after the U.S. airspace was shut, leaving 38 planes no choice but to land in Gander International Airport (where indeed?).
Watch the trailer for Come From Away:
And the staggering numbers don’t end there – over the course of 100 minutes, the 12-strong cast play 84 characters telling more than 16,000 stories. Baffled yet? No need. The seamless production has you from word go. Along with the rest of the audience, and the characters, I laughed, cried and forgot myself as the extraordinary tales of simple human kindness unfolded on the stage before me.
From the revolving stage to the impeccable timing, choreography and chemistry between the cast, the show is truly breath-taking. It tells the compassion and fear of ordinary people who became caught up in an extraordinary moment. Whether it was a friendly arm around the shoulder, a hot shower or a phone to call loved ones, the people of Newfoundland came together in a remarkable way to embrace the Come From Aways (a term for a visitor from beyond the island).
Many of the characters are based on real people, or composites of them, and it’s obvious how much of a responsibility, and a privilege, it is to tell their stories. Stories such as the English oil executive Nick (played brilliantly by Robert Hands) who meets American divorcee Diane (Helen Hobson) when they end up in the same shelter. They fall in love during their five days in Gander – the chemistry on stage is heart-warming – it’s a true story (they married the next year and spent their honeymoon in Newfoundland). Or the story of the elderly Gander resident who revealed his long-hidden Jewish identity to a rabbi who was on one of the stranded planes.
As you’d expect, there are moments of devastation (especially when the stranded passengers learn about the real reason they’ve ended up in Newfoundland) which are met with moments of pure and simple human compassion. But I hadn’t expected so much light, and humour, throughout the musical. Just as the people in real-life found it difficult to talk about the happiness they found amid such tragedy, at first I felt slightly uneasy. But that soon disappeared – after all, kindness conquers evil and that should be celebrated.
There’s so much to invoke joy and laughter, not least when the ‘screeching in’ ritual is performed by the characters (involving drinking horrible island whisky and kissing a dead fish, I needn’t say more). Each and every single member of the cast has such an important part to play, and there are some incredible vocals (I must mention Rachel Tucker who plays Captain Beverley Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft). The songs are infectious too – the musical features an original Celtic, folk-rock score with British Isles influences and world music elements. Think accordions, fiddles and pennywhistles; it complements the bar scene particularly well.
“Somewhere in the middle of nowhere”, was so much human kindness amid so much terror and evil.
The creators of Come From Away, husband and wife Irene Sankoff and David Hein, wanted the show to honour what was lost and commemorate how much was gained. They’ve done that and more.
After a standing ovation, I don’t think I was the only one who left the Phoenix Theatre having found, and gained, so much from a moment in history known for its loss. They say theatre can change the world…
Come From Away is currently booking for performances at the Phoenix Theatre until September. Visit comefromaway.com for details and tickets.