Come From Away is a hit musical based on the true story events of the September 11 WTC tragedy. It tells the incredible story of how 38 planes were diverted from North American airspace to a remote town in Newfoundland, Canada. The locals opened their hearts and homes to almost 7000 scared and confused passengers.
Gander, Newfoundland was chosen as the place for a major airport back in 1935 to allow stopovers for trans-Atlantic aircraft to refuel. As aircraft became bigger and could travel longer distances, the need to stop over became less and Gander airport hosted far fewer aircraft. That is, until September 11, when 38 planes were sent to Gander as all US airspace was closed.
With passengers having been on the planes for up to 28 hours, and with limited communications, they were justifiably scared and angry. Locals in the town were slowly learning the true size of the disaster and had to suddenly come to the realisation that they had to feed, clothe and provide bedding for all of these passengers.
Suddenly differences were put aside and the whole town and surrounds were mobilised to help. While this is the background to the musical, what unfolds is a story of personalities, hopes, loves, prejudices and victories.
Twelve relatable actors take on the formidable task of multiple roles; sometimes playing the locals, sometimes the passengers. What we see from the people of Gander is an unconditional gesture of openness and generosity of both material possessions and of human spirit. What we see in the passengers is a gradual thawing of distrust and fear.
Whilst Come From Away is described as a musical, it has elements of a folk tale as well. People describe their ordinary day before the planes arrive. The mayor and the bus driver union leader at loggerheads over wage rises. The nervous flight attendant trying to reassure the confused passengers. We become friends with the characters as their stories unfold. America’s first-ever female pilot was the pilot of one of the planes. We become totally invested in the stories.
There are around fifteen musical numbers, ranging from the whimsical “Costume Party” where everyone is trying on strange clothes to a poignant “Something’s Missing.” It’s really an emotional roller coaster of feelings, with the local RSPCA officer finding and caring for the animals in transit forgotten in the baggage hold. Loves are lost and loves are found, people are missing in the tragedy. However, there is an overarching sense of honest love and care from the community.
To become a Newfoundlander, we discover, you need to do three things. Learn the language while listening to tales. Take a shot of Screech (a potent alcohol). Then kiss a Cod. Over the course of a few days these passengers become Newfoundlanders. When it’s time to go, there are genuine tears of sadness.
The cast were all incredibly focused and were able to make small costume changes to instantly change roles. With a minimal set design of mainly a few chairs, the setting one minute was the inside of a plane, the next the downtown pub. The eight-piece band with drums, percussion, fiddle, pipes and accordion created the perfect mood. They came out at the end, the sounds of an Irish jig while the audience delivered a rousing standing ovation.
The prayer: Make me a channel of your peace. Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope. Where there is darkness, only light and where there’s sadness, ever joy. This sums up the positive and heart-lifting feeling of the show.
This is a powerful piece of theatre that inspires and energizes. To feel that the world still has communities that care, gives hope. Come From Away is theatre at its best.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The reviewer attended the performance on 29th March
Come From Away plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre until April 29 – Tickets HERE
Cover image: Jeff Busby