Welcome to the Rock: ‘Come From Away’ is a moving tale of human resilience

Come From Away successfully fulfils writers’ Irene Sankoff & David Hein’s intention to “honour what was lost and commemorate what was found” in Gander, Newfoundland following the tragedy of 9/11.

Come From Away
Phoenix Theatre, London
Seen: 29/03/19 Dress Circle: D18
Directed by: Christopher Ashley
Book, Music & Lyrics: Irene Sankoff & David Hein
Choreography: Kelly Devine
Starring: Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon, Cat Simmons & Rachel Tucker
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Sound Design: Gareth Owen
Dialect Coach: Joel Goldes
Tickets can be found here.

What is perhaps most remarkable and unbelievable about Come From Away, which shows us myriad acts of superhuman generosity and selflessness, is that it is all true. Sometimes, the truth beggars belief in such a way that you assume it’s fiction. If somebody wrote this as a story, it would be panned as unrealistic or an idealistic version of the human condition. And yet, this gem of a piece of art exists.

Told in a single act of 100 minutes, Come From Away tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland in the week following the 9/11 attacks which necessitated the landing of 38 planes and 7,000 passengers who needed shelter in Gander for up to 6 days while American airspace was closed. For context, Gander itself only had a population of about 9,500 in 2001 so that required ordinary citizens of the town to put supreme effort behind the care of the ‘Come From Aways’. Despite the tragedy that led them there, Gander became somewhat of a safe refuge for the stranded passengers, where they were welcomed and cared for by strangers. The mammoth task was almost unachievable, featuring myriad problems such as many passengers unable to speak English, lots of different religions, medical requirements and diets among those stranded. I think one of my favourite tales of the generosity of this small community is retold (and slightly changed) in the song Blankets and Bedding, where the local news reported that there was a need for toilet paper at The Lion’s Club (in real life it was Gander Academy), and then had to tell viewers to stop bringing toilet paper as there was too much to house. In the midst of the chaos, some passengers even found love with each other; some waited desperately to hear news from their loved ones back home. While caring for the ‘Come From Aways’, the residents of Gander refused to accept money from the people they cared for, even though just one plane of passengers ran up a telephone bill of $13,000. It is truly the tale of extreme human kindness in the face of the greatest tragedy experienced for a generation – the most touching thing being that the storylines that bring such poignant moments to the audience are entirely factual accounts, some of them even baring the same names as real-life locals and ‘Come From Aways’.

Aside from the incredible true story from which it is based, Come From Away reaches new heights thanks to the music. Aided by music supervisor, Ian Eisendrath, Sankoff & Hein create a beautifully uplifting soundtrack using instruments inspired by Newfoundland music, incorporating many Gaelic sounds, featuring violins and even a button accordion. What’s more, the band are even featured on stage and take part in some scenes, and it’s great to see the music in a musical receiving the recognition as a character as itself. Too often, the musicians and talent involved there are brushed aside, and yet it would be incredibly noticeable were they to not be present, or be anything less than as exceptional as they are. One thing that I certainly didn’t realise is how much culture in Newfoundland appears to have derived from Ireland in particular. The sheer talent of those involved is evident when the music, in concert with the lighting and staging, is able to deliver quite different tones, demonstrating the paranoia of the stranded passengers, as well as numbing sadness, in addition to the hopefulness and joy. The music itself sounds very similar to Irish music, and in fact the accent is quite Irish-sounding. This, of course, makes sense the more research I do and discover that Newfoundland was a British colony in 1949 and many fishing villages were established by British and Irish migrants. Furthermore, there is literally nothing in between Newfoundland and Ireland but sea, so that checks out, and I just thought I was having a minor stroke while I was in the theatre and thinking I could hear Irish people talking.

The great thing about Come From Away is that its the first thing that I’ve seen that is a genuine ensemble piece – the actors are even credited in alphabetical order, without anybody receiving “top billing”, something which is quite refreshing in an age where billing is less about merit and work and more about whose agent is better at negotiating. The reason I mention this is that the actors themselves flip between being ‘Come From Aways’ and locals at the flip of a coin, and this is all dictated by the way that the characters hold themselves as well as their command with their accents. It truly blew my mind how some of these actors flipped from American to Newfoundland to British within a couple of minutes, and credit must be given to Dialect Coach Joel Goldes because that is a phenomenal accomplishment in this production. Something else that aids the change of characters comes from the costumes (Toni-Leslie James), and doubtless the direction that involve minor changes to the what the characters are wearing that signals who they are playing. You’d think that this would make it difficult to follow what is happening, but I was never in any doubt during the show as to who each person was playing at that moment. According to Sankoff & Hein, the reason for each actor switching between both locals and ‘Come From Aways’ is to demonstrate that at “any minute we could be the ones helping or needing help”. Truly, all of us could be any moment away from being in a situation just like one in Gander, and we could be on either side of that event. A truly inspiring message and thought process that honestly hadn’t occurred to me until I had read it.

Another thing that I love about the ensemble cast in this production is just how different and separate they are from the American cast. I was watching some videos on YouTube, and I was struggling to determine which character might have played what. I was struck by how different the costume, hair and acting choices were compared to what I had seen. But I realise that this is precisely the point. None of these individual characters are important, but it’s rather the accumulation of all of these events and people that are the takeaway point. The fact that the vessels for this story can be literally anybody is profoundly moving.

The choreography by Kelly Devine is similarly inspired – it’s amazing what can be achieved with such a minimalist set (Beowulf Boritt) and twelve chairs. What seems fairly simple to an audience, however, must be a logistical nightmare to actually achieve within the show. Not only are each of the chairs numbered, but they have specific places to be delivered to at specific scenes and beats, and it must have taken such a logical and creative mind to lay it all out so clearly. It definitely pays off. You get the sense of the claustrophobia within the planes, and even clifftops are created by chairs. It’s looks so deceptively simple, and yet it’s so effective. Ultimately, this musical does not require large set-pieces – that isn’t what it is about. This isn’t about specific characters or specific events, it’s merely the sum of what it shows to us, the audience: that even in exceptionally dark and trying circumstances, you can still find hope.

The plot and attitude of the stories reflected within Come From Away, are summarised by these quotes – and I got them from the Come From Away London programme, before it looks like I’m trying to take credit for somebody else’s legitimate journalism:

We didn’t do this for a thank you. We did it because it needed to be done.

Bonnie Harris, who cared for dogs, cats and even bonobos from the planes diverted to Gander.

I am a character in the play but it is not about me; when it becomes about individuals, we lose the true meaning of it. Long after I am gone, this story will be told, because it is about human kindness, and we do that very well in Newfoundland.

Claude Elliott, mayor in Gander at the time of the plane diversion.

The town of Gander and the legacy it leaves behind is an inspiration to us all about what it means to be human. It was a community that welcomed and cared for a group of stranded strangers when they needed it the most, never asking for thanks or return, but rather because it was the right thing. We could all learn a lesson from that. Do what’s right is a reward in itself. If you want a show that will fill you with hope and inspiration, then this is the show that you need to see – and I firmly believe that everyone can use it.

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