While many of us no doubt recall the terrible events of 9/11, the chances are we’ve never heard of the remote Newfoundland town of Gander, which played a crucial role in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. That’s set to change with the arrival of musical Come From Away, now playing at London’s Phoenix Theatre.
The population of Gander almost doubled on 11 September 2001 when 38 planes were ordered to land there after American airspace was closed and nearly 7,000 people descended on the town, stranded and far away from home. The residents of Gander opened their homes and their hearts to strangers, who were initially unaware of the horrors that had taken place, and provided them with food, shelter, clothes, kindness and lasting friendship.
Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein have taken this remarkable true story and, following interviews with the real residents of Gander and the people on the planes, turned it into a heartfelt and uplifting musical, a tale about hope, friendship and the kindness of human beings. Directed by Christopher Ashley, Come From Away tells the stories of these residents and stranded travellers from far and wide, including Beverley (Rachel Tucker), the pilot of one of the planes (and incidentally the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft); Gander’s enthusiastic mayor (Clive Carter) and Diane and Nick (Helen Hobson and Robert Hands), who met on the flight and developed an instant attraction. The excellent cast play both residents of Gander and passengers on the flights, and switch between a multitude of accents seamlessly. With such a strong team of actors it’s hard to pick out stand-out performances because everyone excels, but Clive Carter entertains as always; Cat Simmons puts in a heart-wrenching performance as Hannah, a woman who’s unable to locate her son, a firefighter in New York; and Rachel Tucker nails her solo, the inspiring ‘Me and the Sky’, and impresses as the pilot who’s not only concerned for her passengers, but for her colleagues too.
Gander is not your average town and Come From Away is certainly not your average musical. It’s won numerous awards since it opened on Broadway in 2017 and it’s easy to see why – the musical is entertaining and heartening and everything about it works. The set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) is simple but effective, with chairs at the heart of it which are used for anything and everything from bar stools, buses and planes, and it’s complemented well by Howell Binkley’s lighting, which captures the changing mood brilliantly. The soundtrack is infectious with a Gaelic feel and features the toe-tapping ‘Heave Away’, the rousing ‘Welcome to the Rock’; and heartfelt ‘I Am Here’, while the inclusion of the band on stage gives the production a real community feel, as though it’s one big get-together down at the local pub.
While there are laughs aplenty, there are also moments sure to move, notably when the passengers finally learn about the tragic events in America. It deals with the events sensitively and also touches on how fear soon crept in with the inclusion of the character of Ali (Jonathan Andrew Hume), a Muslim chef who is initially made to feel like an outcast by his fellow travellers. While it would be too easy to focus on the tragic events and the horror of that day, what makes Come From Away so special is that it places a story of good about the kindness of strangers at its heart.
Come From Away is the musical the world needs right now and is reminder that there is light and hope in among the darker moments. It’s an utterly compelling tale of human kindness and is guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye and put a smile on your face. Come From Away is joyous, compassionate, and uplifting, like a warm hug at the end of a bad day.
Come From Away is now playing at the Phoenix Theatre
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy