AS CITIES in the United States came under attack on 11 September 2001, aeroplanes from round the world were diverted. Thirty-eight of them landed in Gander, a town of 7000 inhabitants in Newfoundland, Canada. For five days, its population doubled.
The way in which the town responded to thousands of travellers — scared, bewildered, and stranded — is the subject of Come From Away, a musical by the Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein. From modest beginnings, it has grown rapidly and has now had productions all over the world. And it’s terrific.
Twelve actors play multiple roles, representing both the passengers who found themselves in need and members of the community which magnificently housed, fed, and entertained them until airspace reopened. On the periphery of an appalling atrocity, the true stories of how lives were changed are played out to an energetic, folk-rock score. A rather shy British businessman meets his future wife. Two women whose sons are both firefighters form a life-long friendship. A gay couple find unexpected acceptance, but feel their relationship faltering.
matthew murphyMember of the cast in Come From Away, at the Phoenix Theatre, in London
What could be a saccharine business, with foot-stomping dances and whip-crack jokes, is kept real as the shadow of the terrible events keeps passing across it. An Egyptian Muslim is treated with suspicion and subjected to a humiliating strip-search. And there is a breathless moment in which the travellers, unaware of why their planes have been diverted, stare in silence at television footage of the Twin Towers falling.
The simple set of chairs, moved around a tree-lined stage, allows Christopher Ashley’s direction and Kelly Devine’s musical staging to be fluid and compelling. At one moment, we are in a claustrophobic plane cabin; the next, looking out at the open spaces where new opportunities are possible. Halfway through the 100 interval-free minutes, we visit a church. Someone sings the prayer of St Francis and in different corners of the stage adherents of three other religions turn to prayer, their songs harmonising alongside the familiar setting: “Make me a channel of your peace.” It is just one of many rich moments in an unashamedly uplifting show.
In a uniformly excellent cast, Rachel Tucker is striking as the pioneering female captain of one of the aeroplanes, Robert Hands and Helen Hobson are loners tentatively finding love, and Emma Salvo is endearing as a young reporter who has a hilariously stressful first day at work. The on-stage band is razor-sharp, and the constant swapping of roles reminds us that at any time in our lives we might be the person in dire need or the one who is in a position to help.
I saw Come From Away on the day when a gunman opened fire in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. To be reminded that there is a life-enhancing, alternative way to respond to those who are different from us brought the audience to its feet. I won’t forget it.
Come From Away continues at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2, until 14 September. Tickets from www.atgtickets.com or phone 0844 871 7629.