Come From Away

Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Smith and Brant Theatricals, Red Hanger UK Ltd, Gavin Kalin Productions, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Echo Lake Entertainment UK Ltd, Square Peg, Stephen and Paula Reynolds, Fiery Dragons, Judith Ann Abrams Productions/Peter May, Nancy Gibbs in association with Curve
Curve Theatre, Leicester

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Cast of Come From Away Credit: Craig Sugden
Kirsty Hoiles (Diane), Daniel Crowder (Nick) Credit: Craig Sugden
Cast of Come From Away Credit: Craig Sugden
Sara Poyzer (Beverley) Credit: Craig Sugden

For those of us past our late 20s, it is likely you’ll know exactly where you were and what you were doing on 11 September 2001, often described as the day the whole world changed. However, there were some on that now infamous date - specifically in this case, around 7,000 passengers in 38 planes – who weren’t aware of what was unfolding beneath them and most had no idea where they were.

This is the premise of Come From Away, which tells the stories of the people of Gander, Newfoundland (population circa 10,000) and their unexpected guests who descended on the small town’s airport when US air space closed and planes were forced to land wherever they could. Following a successful four-year run in the West End, the first UK and Ireland tour of Irene Sankoff and David Hein's multi-award-winning and stirring musical opens at Leicester’s Curve Theatre.

“Welcome to the Rock” provides a lively introduction to the Gander community, including the mayor, police officer, teacher, and a reporter on her first day in the job. An other-worldly feel grows as although we know Gander is in Canada, the local accents reflect the community's Irish heritage, and this aesthetic is carried through with the Celtic folk-inspired score.

With barely any time to register the horror of the attacks in the US, the community sees the planes landing at their international airport (until 9/11, it had stood unused for some time since planes no longer needed to stop to refuel). The locals realise they now need to look after 7,000 bewildered, tired and hungry passengers who'd already endured over 24 hours stuck in their plane on the airport tarmac. Human kindness kicks in and “Blankets and Bedding” reveals the mind-blowing logistics involved, supplying food, toiletries and somewhere to sleep. And not forgetting the SPCA worker who took it on herself to care for the assorted animals cooped up in the planes’ holds, including a pregnant bonobo ape.

Beowulf Boritt's set frames the stage with tall pines and wood panels, partially shading the excellent on-stage band but allowing Kelly Devine’s impressive musical staging to shine—chairs are the main prop and the cast execute their moves almost as a second breath, a kind of fluid precision.

The cast are fantastically impressive, depicting numerous characters and nationalities without resorting to cliché. Diane (Kirsty Hoiles) and Nick’s (Daniel Crowder) story is touching, and in “Me and the Sky”, Sara Poyzer portrays American Airlines pilot Beverley and her love of flying; she’d always wanted to fly and achieved her goal, despite male resistance. Her realisation that her beloved planes had been used as bombs in the attack is haunting.

What struck me is how, even with all our differences in culture and outlook (and “Prayer” is a good exemplification of this), our common humanity is the stronger thread. On that particular day, fear and terror brought people together, but also, so did all the good things about people and their capacity to work together and extend warmth and kindness to strangers.

This could all descend into sugary sentimentality, however, director Christopher Ashley keeps up a fast pace and the plain-talking, reportage-style depiction of the situation does not allow any such wallowing.

Tempers inevitably fray in this highly stressful situation. A cosmopolitan couple fears how their homosexuality might be viewed in this rural backwater, and mistrust develops towards those who appear to be “Middle Eastern”, with one passenger subjected to a humiliating strip search before being allowed to re-board the plane when they could finally leave the island to continue their journeys.

It is often said that one purpose of theatre is to hold a mirror up to society; the reflection here is predominantly a favourable one however, in this case, it also provides an opportunity for self-reflection: what would I have done in that situation? You would hope you'd do the same as the people of Gander.

Come From Away is heartwarming and uplifting, and its satisfying dose of human kindness sorely needed in these fractious times.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

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