I can’t remember where I was when I first heard about Come From Away but I know it had to be on my theatre wish list for 2019. But I can remember clearly where I was on 11th September 2001. And this mainly sung-through musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is based on that fateful day, and the five days that follow. But instead of focusing on the horror of the events in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC, Come From Away focuses on a small town called Gander in Newfoundland, Canada that opened its doors and hearts to 7000 displaced air passengers.
Amongst the passengers, there’s a mother worried about her firefighter son in New York. A gay couple testing the limits of their relationship in a difficult situation. A young black man, unused to being treated with respect and kindness. The first female captain of an American Airlines crew. A lonely Englishman and a Texan divorcee for whom traumatic experience ends up bringing true love. An Egyptian Muslim, treated with fear and suspicion.
And there are tales to tell amongst the population of Gander too. The caring SPCA worker who works tirelessly to ensure the animals aboard are cared for. Including a pair of rare bonobo chimps. The striking bus drivers who break the picket line to help transport passengers from the airport to town. A rookie TV news reporter. And all characters are either real, or based on real-life stories. Sankoff and Hein spent many hours interviewing both the “plane people” and their hosts, and their vignettes are woven into the story.
In a clever casting ploy, a company of just 12 actors play both the stranded passengers and the locals with just subtle costume and accent changes to differentiate between the roles. There were actually three stand-ins performing on the night we watched, but such is the talent of this incredible cast you’d be hard-pressed to realise.
It’s hard to single out a stand-out performance as this is a true ensemble musical. But Cat Simmons singing I Am Here as Hannah brought goosebumps, as did the triumphant female empowerment anthem Me and the Sky from Beverley (performed by standby Chiara Baronti). The brilliant band were on-stage throughout and were particularly allowed to shine with their ceilidh style performance during In The Bar. Their encore, lingering long after the cast take their final bows, elicit whoops of joy from the audience. They’d have received a standing ovation if everyone in the sold-out auditorium at the Phoenix Theatre wasn’t already standing.
It’s a simple set design, with low-key but impactful lighting. The actors move the chairs around the stage to become a bus, a plane, a bar, a coffee shop, a viewpoint where sparks are ignited between new lovers. Despite the devastating backdrop of 9/11, there is a constant stream of humour running through, from bored passengers emptying the plane mini bar, to the gayest bar in Newfoundland, to elaborate fantasies involving cardiologists and airline pilots. And many moments where tears well up. Like when we learn that Hannah’s firefighter son didn’t make it. That Beverley knew the pilot whose plane hit the Pentagon. And when we find out that the bonobo on board has lost her baby. I’ve never cried over an unborn chimp before.
And then there are the heartwarming moments. Which of course cause even more tears. Diane getting drunk on the local liquor and kissing Nick. The beautifully done The Prayer, when multiple religions come together in one amalgamated chorus. Finding out that our unseen bonobo did eventually give birth, and that the baby was named Gander.
Come From Away has leapfrogged Hamilton as my musical of the year (although that first half of Hamilton did blow me away). Les Mis and Wicked will always be my favourites, and hard to top. But something about Come From Away makes me want to revisit the rock and kiss the fish very very soon. After all, we all come from away.
Come From Away is currently running at the Phoenix Theatre, London. You can find further details and book your tickets at the Come From Away website.