Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s musical began life following a visit to Gander, Newfoundland on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; it was workshopped the following year, before making its debut in 2013 in Ontario. Several other productions followed (in both Canada and the USA), before it made its Broadway debut in 2017 – and now Come From Away has made its way across the Atlantic for its West End première. This production was launched back in October last year, prior to a run at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and it’s now set up camp at Phoenix Theatre.
This almost entirely sung-through musical tells the remarkable true story of the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers; 38 planes were diverted to Gander, almost doubling the town’s population size and forcing its residents into crisis mode. Everyday life (including union-led bus strikes) comes to a temporary halt as the Newfoundlanders group together to provide shelter, food and company to the community of Come From Aways that has been left on their doorstep – after spending a considerable amount of time cooped up on their planes, and with a variety of nationalities between them, this is easier said than done. But after experiencing a change of scenery, and getting into some clean clothes, they slowly come to terms with their situation and even start building new relationships. After a few days it seems like it might finally be possible to get the planes back in the air, but with a hurricane brewing they need to act fast…
In some ways, Come From Away is a rather unlikely Broadway and West End hit; it’s no big flashy musical in the vein of something like The Phantom of the Opera or Mamma Mia! – instead, what you get is a stripped back production with plenty of doubling up, a simple set and a catchy Gaelic rock soundtrack. What is truly incredible about it is how quickly you get sucked into their world and how invested you become in the individual stories, despite the fact that the show is only 100 minutes and you meet a fair few characters along the way. Almost immediately you find yourself rooting for the love story, hoping for their loved ones’ safe return, and revelling in new-found friendships.
When asked by people unfamiliar with the show what it’s about, you might initially describe it as “the 9/11 musical”, though in actual fact the setting is almost incidental – what it’s really about is the best of humanity. Terrible things may happen every day, but the propensity for kindness is also always there when it’s most needed; in an increasingly fractious world (or just if you live in London!) seeing examples of generosity like this has an incredible effect. It can be easy to subsist within your own little bubble, forgetting that other people have their own worries, but even the smallest gesture can make their world (and yours) a better place.
On top of the warm glow that emanates from this emotional & funny story, visually speaking it’s incredibly rich. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design is suggestive of log cabins and forests, with very few props; chairs most often do the talking, becoming anything from planes and buses to government office furniture. The set is bathed in Howell Binkley’s beautiful and atmospheric lighting design, allowing for every change of mood and environment, and slickly directed by Christopher Ashley (with musical staging from Kelly Devine).
It’s almost unfair to single out any members of the cast, as they have become an awe-inspiring unit that blend together and morph into a range of characters at the drop of a hat; having them all portray Ganderites and Come From Aways is a nice touch, as it does remind you that anyone could easily be in either position. Robert Hands & Helen Hobson are truly wonderful as Nick & Diane, and Jonathan Andrew Hume & David Shannon are great value as the two Kevins – Nathanael Campbell, too, provides some excellent comedy moments. Cat Simmons is particularly moving as Hannah, as she anxiously tries to get news of her New York firefighter son’s whereabouts, and Rachel Tucker brilliantly captures Beverley’s changing view of the world around her – from optimistic & ambitious pilot to someone slightly warier of what other people are capable of.
Come From Away is a show that needs to run and run; its brilliant music and wealth of humour are enough to keep you coming back for more, and we can never remind ourselves too many times of the good that humanity is capable of when it puts its mind to it.
My verdict? Frontrunner for show of the year, packed with all the warmth & humour you could possibly need – it deserves to run and run.
Come From Away runs at the Phoenix Theatre until 15 February 2020. Tickets are available online or from the box office.