Musical review: Come From Away

This uplifting musical about a small town that helped thousands of passengers left stranded by the 9/11 terrorist attacks apparently receives a standing ovation every time it is performed ­– and opening night at Her Majesty’s Theatre was no different.

Mar 30, 2023, updated Mar 30, 2023
A versatile cast of performers play passengers, plane crew and Newfoundlanders in 'Come From Away'. Photo: Jeff Busby / Supplied

A versatile cast of performers play passengers, plane crew and Newfoundlanders in 'Come From Away'. Photo: Jeff Busby / Supplied

In the days, weeks and years following the 2001 attacks on New York, the stories of hope and kindness rose up and became defining factors amid the horror. It was five straight days of generosity that Canadian theatre-makers Irene Sankoff and David Hein focused on to create Come from Away.

At the edge of the Atlantic in the Canadian province of Newfoundland is the town of Gander, which took in 7000 passengers after their 30 planes were diverted when the Twin Towers were struck. The musical tells the story of how the lives of the 9000 locals and the “come from aways” (the local term for people not born on the island) intersected for a handful of days, with the stories a distilled version of hundreds of accounts.

The distinctive folk-rock music of Newfoundland, which reflects its Celtic roots, brings the story to life and the band is right there on stage for every song. Cast members break out into song easily and often, with the exploration of the plot occurring through the richness of each number and helped along by delightful instruments such as a bodhrán (drum), a fiddle and an accordion.

A joyous highlight of Come From Away is a scene in a Gander bar that brings the musicians from the outskirts to the centre of the stage as the room erupts in a party. For just a moment, grounded planes and uncertainty are forgotten and the characters become honorary Newfoundlanders to the soundtrack of an Irish flute.

The show is peppered with snippets and vignettes, and even with so little time to tell so many stories, the characters are developed beautifully – it becomes easy to laugh and cry with them. Humour is used respectfully and abundantly, but themes of heightened racism and fear following the attacks are not ignored.

The versatile cast of 12 embody passengers, plane crew and Newfoundlanders, with the change of character as easy as the removal or putting on of a jacket or hat. Actors slip in and out of distinct accents from around the world – most often the Irish-influenced Newfoundland twang; this carries the risk of being distracting, but the performers tackle the task well.

Characters wear the casual, nondescript early-2000s look of jeans and tops. Similarly, the sets are effective yet modest, with timber slats constructed as a backdrop and tall tree trunks to the sides. The design is, in the best possible way, simple. And it’s that averageness that places you on this little island in the Atlantic you’ve never heard of before.

The truth of the stories heightens all emotion and what’s left after that standing ovation is a visceral wonder at the capacity of kindness to stretch so far and run so deep.

Come From Away is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre until April 29, after which it will have seasons in Perth and Canberra.

Read an interview with the theatre-makers Irene Sankoff and David Hein here on CityMag.

Topics: musicals
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