wed 29/05/2024

Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre review - a necessary corrective to our traumatic times | reviews, news & interviews

Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre review - a necessary corrective to our traumatic times

Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre review - a necessary corrective to our traumatic times

9/11-themed musical crosses the Atlantic, its capacious heart intact

Have a gander: the ensemble of 'Come From Away'Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Against the grimmest of backdrops, generosity and even grace can be possible.

That's the eternally uplifting message of Come From Away, the surprise Broadway musical hit about the community that was taking place north of the US/Canada border even as a New York felled by 9/11 continued to burn. Cynics may scoff (and have) at the feelgood factor to a show that some have been tempted to dismiss as merely a weightier Mamma Mia! But that's to miss the point entirely of the musical's canny portrait of a ready and unselfconscious empathy, which transcends the specific trauma from which the piece sprang to speak to a world scarcely less self-immolating and fractured today. 

The narrative has a stunning simplicity. On that fateful Tuesday morning as New York found itself under siege, some 38 planes containing nearly 7,000 passengers suddenly found themselves rerouted to Gander, an unassuming town in Newfoundland, Canada, that happened to have an outsized airport. Billeted there for five days before they could resume their aborted journeys, the passengers and crew found a degree of welcome from the Gander citizenry that couldn't have contrasted more sharply with the ever-simmering amalgam of shock and grief elsewhere. Amid loss, it seems, something was found, and who could ask for more than that? The work of a songwriting team (Irene Sankoff and David Hein) new to the commercial world amidst which Come From Away has firmly planted itself, the show across 100, interval-less minutes communicates an impressionistic sense of how the natives faced off with the surge of newcomers in their midst.Clive Carter (right) in 'Come From Away'"Are there vegetables in Canada?" a passenger is heard to ask, only for there to emerge one story after another of an unexpected commingling of sympathies and even minds. Nor did the planes' eventual departure allow Gander to revert to business as usual, at least if an opening night offer from the stage is any gauge. Scarcely had the applause subsided before Gander's recently retired Mayor, Claude Ellott (played in the show by Clive Carter, pictured above right), took to the mic to offer his town's hospitality (and gratis!) to anyone who might want to travel there. Well, that's this year's Brexit-era holiday sorted then. 

Rachel Tucker in 'Come From Away'We get snapshots of encounters, some fleeting and others made to last, whereby a bewildered collective are gradually made aware of the seismic events ongoing elsewhere at a time before news sped quite as instantaneously as it does now. Among those stranded is Hannah (Cat Simmons), a Brooklyner who fears for the firefighter son from whom she has had no word and who takes unexpected succour in the warmth proffered her way by Beulah (Jenna Boyd), a Gander local whose own son is a volunteer fire fighter. Englishman Nick (Robert Hands) angsts about the Texas meeting he will not make only to find love instead in the calming presence of Diane (Helen Hobson), whom he went on to wed.

These vignettes unfold to a springy, Celtic-influenced score played by an onstage band of eight whose musical timbre at times evoke the landscape of Once, a previous Broadway transplant to occupy this same theatre. Eschewing the histrionics that beset, say, the Titanic anthem ("My Heart Will Go On") that gets affectionately sent up here, the score insists time and again on the essential strangeness of what is happening, and on every level. "On the edge of the world or wherever we are," goes one lyric, speaking to the psychic and physical displacement felt at large. A more direct if celebratory disbelief is sounded by Beverley, who was the first woman to rise to the rank of pilot for a commercial airline  an achievement celebrated in the musical's signature showstopper "Me and the Sky", with which the clarion-voiced Rachel Tucker (pictured above) raises the roof. 

Christopher Ashley, the director, was a surprise winner a few years ago for that season's Tony Award. But upon a second viewing of the show, I'm even more aware of how propulsive Ashley's production is, and how deftly the 12-strong company move between roles, allowing individual personalities to emerge while always serving the broader canvas. Was everyone really this sweet and nice during the five days chronicled here? In fact, we are alerted to Islamophobia more than once, just as we clock the unravelling of a central relationship between two men both called Kevin even as new couples are being forged. Beowulf Boritt's planked-wood design typifies the rough-hewn, rustic spirit of a show about ordinary people discovering themselves amidst extraordinary circumstances. Come From Away tugs at the emotions, yes, but those tears are fully earned. 

The 12-strong company move deftly between roles, allowing individual personalities to emerge while always serving the broader canvas


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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