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Come from Away

Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Smith & Brant Theatricals, Red Hanger, Gavin Kalin Productions, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Echo Lake Entertainment, Square Peg, Stephen and Paula Reynolds, Fiery Dragons, Judith Ann Abrams/Peter May, Nancy Gibbs, Curve Leicester

Liverpool Empire

March 12-23, 2024; 1 hr 40 mins, no interval

(also Leeds Grand, April 30-May 11; Hull New Theatre, June 4-8;, Sheffield Lyceum, July 9-20; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, July 30-Aug 3; Theatre Royal, Newcastle, August 6-17; The Lowry, Salford, December 3, 2024-January 5, 2025)

A warm welcome from Newfoundland in Come From Away. Pic: Craig Sugden
A warm welcome from Newfoundland in Come From Away. Pic: Craig Sugden

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Take a minute…

You are here, at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world.

Where the river meets the sea.

Here, at the edge of the Atlantic, on an island in between there and here.

Come From Away is the story of plane passengers, crew and townsfolk, when American airspace was closed and dozens of planes grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001.

The backstory, mentioned briefly, is that Gander had functioned as a fuelling station in the days when planes needed to refill to make it over the Atlantic. Since those days had passed, the town peacefully reverted to its backwater status with half a dozen planes passing through every day, and no-one had got around to tearing down the largely redundant airport.

So in the wake of the tragedy, 38 planes and 7000 people incoming from Europe, were diverted to Gander for five days and four nights – almost doubling the population.

This musical about the event is a masterclass in ensemble theatre, with no central character but a collection of real-life stories gathered from real people. With actors directly addressing the audience, we are in no doubt that the characters are giving us their accounts. Similarly when bar chairs are minimalistically repurposed to show us the plane, we are invested in the fantasy created. It’s a smart device, reminding us all the while that we’re hearing reenacted versions of someone’s real experience.

Not only this, but the performances are demanding. The islanders speak in the distinct dialect of Newfoundland English, which sounds like a mix of Irish and Canadian. Twelve key actors flit (often with just the removal of a hat) between Newfoundland roles and plane people, including Texans, Californians, British and Egyptian voices, and all this often in song. It’s a big ask, skilfully delivered.

There are a couple of moments in which characters shine. Beverley the pilot (Sara Poyzer) moves us in Me and the Sky, charting her life journey from childhood aspirations, overcoming prejudice, becoming the first female captain at American Airlines, motherhood, and her devastation at 9/11, the loss of a colleague and the weaponisation of the commercial aeroplanes she loves. It’s a rollercoaster of a song and a hell of a performance.

More devastating still, Bree Smith as Hannah bemoans her situation in I am Here, while her son the firefighter is lost at Ground Zero. Smith gives us a vocal quality that is incredible, while emotively tearful – the most technically demanding feat for any singer, and yet she delivers. Hannah’s son was never found.

There are beautifully poignant moments too, such as the weaving together of a hymn, a Muslim chant and a Jewish incantation as the characters pray, each in their own tradition. In another vignette, a Newfoundlander communicates with an African passenger without a shared language, by aligning the numbering system of their bibles to offer words of comfort. The warm welcome is not always without exception though, as there’s more than a hint of unrest as the Muslim guests are often less-well received, and Ali the chef is treated with suspicion and aggression.

The songs and motifs hold real dramatic and musical meaning, largely giving us the Irish-Canadian flavour of the place we’ve landed. This comes into its own when the townsfolk hold a ceilidh and the band comes out to show us the penny whistling, bodhran-playing, fiddling and some very enthusiastic guitar. All this under the baton (or, in the onstage moments, the accordion) of maestro Andrew Corcoran. To hammer the point home of the musical centrality, the band is the last on stage to give us the final encore after all the characters have returned and retreated.

Come From Away is, above all, a tale of togetherness in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. It teaches us how humanity opens its arms to strangers in need. As the islanders tell us, 'the door's always open and the kettles always on’.

It’s two dozen, or maybe a few thousand true stories, smoothed out and rolled into one; and the genuine humanity of the experiences we see recounted shines through.

Come From Away is a truly beautiful piece of work, inside and out.

More info and tickets here


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