It almost sounds like something that should be protested against – a musical with lively choreography and joyous melodies, about what happened to thousands of people on planes that were forced to make emergency landings at Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, because United States airspace was closed in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist incidents in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania on 11th September 2001. But the various stories contained in this tight and intense show are told with a warmth and sensitivity that shows that whoever we are, wherever we are headed, what we have in common ultimately outweighs what we don’t.
Operation Yellow Ribbon was an even wider operation than the narrative in Come From Away suggests – this was a nationwide effort by Canadian authorities to ground aircraft (as it was not known at the time if there were any more planes that could be hijacked and used for destructive purposes) at various airports, both military and civilian. Across Canada, 255 aircraft went to 17 different airports – at Gander, 38 planes with 6,122 passengers and 473 crew between them. According to the show, the town of Gander had a population just shy of 10,000 at the time, and I trust it is not too much of a spoiler to let you know that the local mayor declared a state of emergency.
‘Blankets and Bedding’ puts the scale of the community’s sudden operations into perspective, as well as including the kind of light, folksy humour that permeates the musical overall. Beulah Davis (Jenna Boyd) is co-ordinating the effort to set aside enough floor space, mattresses, toiletries and food supplies for as many people as Gander can accommodate – beyond that, the passengers (who were only allowed to disembark after twenty-eight hours) and crew must be sent to temporary accommodation elsewhere.
In a single act (an interval would have been superfluous at best and disruptive at worst), numerous language barriers are overcome, one way or another, and so many different perspectives come to light, partly because there isn’t anyone in the twelve-strong cast who doesn’t have ‘and others’ included in the list of characters they play. Time is set aside for numerous stories, and at the same time, the show never feels overburdened or too complicated. The narratives are wide-ranging, from Ali (Jonathan Andrew Hume), an Egyptian chef whose nationality is worth mentioning here as it is used against him after enough passengers have seen the television news on screens in bars and cafes, to Beverley (Rachel Tucker), an American Airlines pilot who rose through the ranks despite much opposition to female pilots in the aviation industry. For Diane (Helen Hobson), being stranded provides a unique opportunity for personal reinvention.
Observing the welcoming nature of the Gander locals, it is admirable and humbling to see this community do its utmost to do what they can for their guests. The cast themselves are remarkable, chopping and changing from one character to another seemingly effortlessly – and often changing accent too. Robert Hands as Nick (an infinitely more authentic British accent than the one on the Broadway cast recording: can we please have a West End cast recording?), for instance, doubles up as Doug, a local air traffic controller.
Okay, so some of the characters might appear to be contrived. Vegetarians? Tick. Same-sex couple? Tick. Animal lovers? Tick. Orthodox Jewish passenger, who can’t touch any of the Newfoundland delicacies laid out because they’re not kosher? That too. But the show is also remarkably inventive, with a sparse set leaving a reliance on the dialogue to properly determine time and place. An eight-piece band, who have their moments on stage, play the sort of instruments that would be used in Newfoundland, such is the attention to local detail.
“Thank you for coming to Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?” is the sort of line that reminds the audience, amusingly, of the reality of the limited facilities available in temporary accommodation. It is also indicative of how unsentimental the production really is, unafraid of a naturalistic approach. There is much to learn here about the ways in which kindness can be shown to strangers, and much to enjoy in the tuneful melodies through which this assortment of characters finds their lives permanently affected, for good or for ill, by what happened over five days in Gander in mid-September 2001. A stunning, powerful and passionate production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Telling the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded air passengers during the wake of 9/11, and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them, will be Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon, Cat Simmons and Rachel Tucker with Mark Dugdale, Bob Harms, Kiara Jay, Kirsty Malpass, Tania Mathurin, Alexander McMorran, Brandon Lee Sears and Jennifer Tierney.
As uneasiness turned into trust and music soared into the night, gratitude grew into friendships and their stories became a celebration of hope, humanity and unity.
Awarded the Tony® for Best Direction of a Musical, Christopher Ashley’s production guides audiences through a colourful and spirited cast of characters, brought to life by Tony® and Grammy® nominated writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes with no intermission
AGE RESTRICTION: Recommended for ages 10 and older.
Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0JP, UK
Come From Away Theatre Tickets Booking Now.