A true story of hope and healing in the wake of horror becomes the musical for our fractured times
From the Canadian Jewish husband and wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away tells the incredible true story of how the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, welcomed the passengers of planes from around the world grounded by the 9/11 attacks. Onto this tiny community of about 7,000 descended, literally, the passengers and crews of every airplane diverted from American airspace in the aftermath of 9/11, almost doubling the population.
The idea of random acts of kindness is an attractive one especially at this time of confrontation and divisiveness. So the London opening of this supremely life affirming and inclusive musical seems a little miracle of timeliness. As Gander’s expansive former mayor Claude Elliott, who has seen himself portrayed by actors in more than a dozen productions to date, says: “You feel how useful this good news story is. On 9/11 we saw the worst that could happen, but around 7,000 people in that tragedy saw the best in humanity.”
In 2011 Sankoff and Hein spent a month in Gander and its Newfoundland neighbours, meeting both locals and “come from aways” (as the locals call visitors), reunited for the 10th anniversary of their enforced meeting in the wake of 9/11. From the accounts they heard they crafted this gloriously life-affirming musical, sometimes telling individual stories, sometimes conflating characters and their experiences, but always succeeding in giving their narrative total authenticity.
In director Christopher Ashley’s fast-moving fluid production, the cast of 12 come in an assortment of wonderfully normal shapes, sizes and ages, dressed for realism by costume designer Toni-Leslie James. These multitalented beings multitask, morphing in moments between Newfoundlanders and Come From Aways on Beowulf Boritt’s elegantly simple, equally versatile set, which they transform from plane cabin to café to church to scenic local beauty spot, simply by reconfiguring chairs and tables on a quick revolve.
It’s no coincidence that there is an Irish feel to the music played by MD Alan Berry’s superb eight-strong band, for Gander was largely settled by Irish immigrants. It brings the energy of a ceilidh to the show’s 100 minutes (no interval needed), adding to the seamlessness of the scene changes. It’s almost through-sung, which somehow makes the exchanges of dialogue all the more telling. Both songs and dialogue are shared with the audience as much as between cast members.
The material is beautifully shaped. Once the everyday routine of this down to earth fishing community – as argumentative as it is mutually supportive – is established with the storming opening number ‘Welcome to the Rock’, and the individual locals have made their mark, the routine is interrupted by the horrific breaking news of 9/11. The cast switch roles and furniture to become passengers and crew confined to the cabin in the grounded planes, stir-crazy after more than 24 hours and suffering unbearable tension for lack of information and communication.
Meanwhile the community struggles with the logistics of preparing to accommodate the 7,000 guests that will double the population of The Rock. The doors of schools are thrown open, supplies are donated by extraordinarily generous locals and eventually the dazed guests disembark to gradually respond to the heartwarming welcome they receive in makeshift kitchens and dormitories. At a supermarket checkout a guest is surprised and moved to be offered an invitation to a hot shower at the home of a checkout girl. Another, sent out foraging for barbecue grills, is overwhelmed by the hundreds he is offered from every backyard.
Friendships are made and cemented, notably between two women whose nearest and dearest are firefighters, a local and a grounded New Yorker; between two ‘mature’ passengers, a Brit and a Dallas lass, who fall in love; and a stranded British rabbi connecting with a Holocaust survivor who has suppressed his Jewishness until this moment of closure.
Every story is funny or moving or both and they are sensitively rounded out by the musical numbers. As that stranded mother of a New York firefighter’s request to go to a local church to pray is fulfilled, ‘Prayer’ mingles the beautiful hymn setting of the Prayer of St Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace”, with the Jewish prayer Oseh Shalom and with Muslim prayers from a stranded master chef (under much suspicion, given the origins of the terrorists).
A female pilot reveals her passion for the career she longed for from girlhood. A local woman makes it her mission to rescue and care for stranded animals, from a show dog to a pregnant ape. Each story and song stands out and contributes to the whole.
It would be invidious to pick out any of this outstanding company, so I will simply reveal that the entire audience in a sold-out house rose to its feet to applaud. Together we joined in celebration with cast and band until our hands were sore from clapping along and we filed out with huge smiles on our lips, a little fortified to face our own divided present. I urge everyone to see this to help restore faith in your fellow humans, sanity and a sense of proportion. As the programme quotes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, it ‘shines' indeed like 'a good deed in a naughty world.’
By Judi Herman
Production photos by Matthew Murphy
Portraits of cast and real life ‘Come From Aways’ by Craig Sugden
Come From Away runs until Saturday 14 September. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). From £19.50. Phoenix Theatre, WC2H 0JP. https://comefromawaylondon.co.uk
Listen to our interview with Leivi Sudak of Edgware Lubavitch, the real-life rabbi of Come From Away, on JR OutLoud.