REVIEW: COME FROM AWAY (Phoenix Theatre) ★★★★

We are living in a world of uncertainty and in any walk of life we are all in need of a sense of community to get us through these troublesome times. Come From Away encompasses this in the most powerful of senses by forcing upon audiences a truly challenging time period to digest though yet suggest we reminisce this with high spirits.

On 11th September 2001, 7,000 international passengers were emergency landed via plane to the remote border town of Gander, Canada. Known as the “Come From Aways”. Come From Away is based upon interviews with the people of Gander (‘Newfoundlanders’) who took care of the stranded thousands and the growing community in the town set against a backdrop of such monumental cultural tension as well as a lack of outside communication or internet.

It’s such a niche angle to dissect upon one of the most era-defining moments of the 21st century, and yet Christopher Ashley’s delicate direction has allowed audiences to look back at this movement in an oddly awe-inspiring manner. It’s the constant feeling of whether you should be laughing or crying throughout the show that always stunned me, even though there is clear direction in each scene whether it’s to be taken as comedic or dramatic.

From the likes of a female airport, a male Egyptian chef or a local animal shelter worker, I have a huge amount of respect to all of the actors who must play, or seem to perform, at least 5 characters each throughout the duration. Christopher Ashley chooses to tell the story with a lack of set and focus purely on the organic movement and characterisation of each mini plot-line and cluster of passengers in order to develop true camaraderie across the range of ages and cultures of passengers during the week of 9/11.

All the musical arrangements from Irene Sankoff and David Hein are terrific. The strong Celtic influence throughout the score reminds you of Once, which also played back in the Phoenix Theatre. It’s a curveball at first to hear such a strong Irish sound in the context of this being set in a Canadian town, but it echoes the thousands of Newfoundlanders, the majority of whom were of Irish descent. There’s not one strong stand out song or ensemble member in the show — but surely that’s the joy of this, in that everything is of such a high quality that it’s difficult to pinpoint particular highlights in the casting or music.

Whilst some may see Come From Away as ‘glossing’ over the events of 9/11 and appearing too hearty — do we really want to choose to spend an evening recapping the trauma of the era? Or, would we rather pinpoint at an entirely unique and extraordinary angle of the epoch and glance deeper into a new gathering of people who were affected differently? I will personally choose the latter. It may have been a surprise sleeper hit when it was first performed in the USA, but I think in a time of true panic when we are all searching for any source of human support, the impact of Come From Away will feel far stronger today in London.

Reviewed by Barry O’Reilly


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