Review - Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre
Come From Away lost out in the Tony race for most of the seven awards it was nominated for to Dear Evan Hansen, apart from Christopher Ashley who won the award for Best Director of a Musical. Both shows are coincidentally transferring to the West End this year in replica versions of their original Broadway productions, along with Waitress and On Your Feet. But Come From Away is in a category of its own: a genuinely original musical, based on real-life events that took place in the immediate wake of 9/11, that is full of heart, truth and genuine emotion.
This feel-good show about a feel-bad world-shattering event is also a little show with a big heart. It revolves around a tiny community in Newfoundland, Canada, who found themselves offering hospitality, food and friendship to nearly 7,000 people who were on some 38 aeroplanes headed to the US but who were diverted to Gander airport when American airspace was shut down on that fateful day… and for the succeeding four days, until they could resume their delayed journeys.
As created by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the book, music and lyrics after attending the 10th anniversary commemoration of the crisis and met many of those who had been diverted - the plane people, or 'come from aways' as they became known - as well as the locals who embraced them.
They have carefully distilled and dovetailed some of those stories into an alternately poignant and uplifting musical, embedded in a rich folk score that draws on authentic Canadian influences.
For once, this is a genuinely original musical, not drawing on a pre-existing film or book, but based on true-life events that give it a powerful resonance. This was emphasised on opening night by the presence in the theatre of some of the real-life people it is based on, who joined the cast playing them for the curtain calls.
A tight-knit ensemble company of just twelve actors, all of whom play multiple roles, lend it fierce commitment and bring a spellbinding individuality to each character they pick up along the way. These include pilots, like American Airlines pilot Beverley (spectacularly sung by Rachel Tucker), locals like mayor Claude (Clive Carter) and Bonnie (Mary Doherty), and passengers like Kevin and Kevin who are coupled when they arrive but will split up afterwards (David Shannon and Jonathan Andrew Hume), and Diane and Nick (Helen Hobson and Robert Hands), who meet and couple up while they are on the island.
It's a show with an impact that’s difficult to describe: it feels like it creeps up on you unawares, before flooring you with emotion. I was just overwhelmed - and judging by the cheers and tears on the opening night, most of the audience seemed to be, too.
Come From Away tickets are available now.
"‘Come from Away’ creates a kind of temporary utopia: a little world where (almost) everyone is forced, by earth-shattering events hundreds of miles away, to come together and build a community based on principles of generosity and care."
Alice Saville, Time Out, ★★★★★
"In Christopher Ashley’s nimble production, a cast of 12 switch between playing the locals and the stranded travellers who have — in Newfoundland parlance — “come from away”. It’s an approach that heightens the sense of the groups happily merging, and the songs, mostly choral and propulsive, have a crowd-pleasing warmth as well as a Celtic accent (think pipes, fiddle and drum). "
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard, ★★★★
"See the show in the West End, and it takes all of ten seconds to be in its generous embrace. You stay there for the next 100 minutes: laughing, tapping your foot, wiping away tears, feeling good about humanity — what a rare, welcome feeling that is these days — without ever feeling you’re just being sold gloopy musical-theatre good cheer."
Dominic Maxwell, The Times, ★★★★★