Come From Away: Musical Review

Rating: 5

By Richard Barber

A Canadian feel-good musical about the collapse of the Twin Towers arrives in London, having been deluged in awards and judged not just feel-good, but feel-fabulous? Surely not. It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Even vaguely bad taste.

How wrong I was. It had escaped me that 7,000 passengers and crew in 38 airplanes from all over the world landed in Newfoundland when all flights were halted following the 9/11 terrorist attack. The townsfolk of Gander, a backwoods Nowheresville, with a population of just 10,000, where there are only two policeman and everyone knows everyone’s business, have only hours to prepare for the arrival of thousands of scared, bewildered, exhausted ‘plane people’. 

The miracle is that the good old Ganders opened their homes and their hearts to these strangers. Very ordinary people, caught up in an extraordinary moment, demonstrated the power of human kindness, the pleasure of giving – clothes, loo-paper, beds, showers, comfort, whiskey, barbecues  and, above all, their time – without counting the cost. There’s a particularly poignant moment when a Canadian suddenly clocks that he can communicate with a foreign couple who don’t speak English by opening their own Bible at Philippians and pointing to the verse ‘Be anxious for nothing’. It gives the piece the feel of a Biblical parable.

Christopher Ashley’s assured, pacy production has a striking down-to-earth rusticity and ordinariness, with just a few chairs rearranged to create planes and bars. Unapologetically unsophisticated, yet simultaneously polished and professional are very much the keys in which married Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein have written the book, music and lyrics. It is pitch-perfect in every way, from the folksy Irish music played on pipes, fiddles and drums to the hoe-down dancing and stomping. 

Nothing is glamourised. Nor generalised. A diverse and dazzlingly talented dozen switch between playing the hosts and their guests. Little by little some of the characters come into sharp focus. Hannah (a moving Cat Simmons) is the mother of a New York firefighter who isn’t answering his phone. Her heartbreaking song, I Am Here, captures her desperate longing to be there looking for him. She and Beulah (Jenna Boyd), mother of a Newfoundland fireman, strike up a deep friendship. Texan divorcee Diane (Helen Hobson) and gauche British oilman, Nick (Robert Hands), fall in love. (Spoiler: they married and have lived happily ever after.) In the terrific Me and the Sky, Beverley (a belting Rachel Tucker) tells her trailblazing story of becoming the first female pilot in the US. 

One minute you will be tapping your feet; the next mopping your tears. The final song, Something’s Missing, includes the line ‘Something’s changed, something’s rearranged.’ A quietly life-changing show.  

Phoenix Theatre, London WC2H, booking until 15 February 2020: 0844-871 7629, www.comefromawaylondon.co.uk

 

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