It’s rare that a show arrives in the West End that I struggle to find words for. After listening to the soundtrack for two years and willing the show to come to London for most of that time, I finally saw Come From Away in February 2019. The fact I returned to the show in less than 24 hours surely speaks volumes for this humbling, heartbreaking yet uplifting production.
This joyous new musical shares the incredible real-life story of the 7,000 air passengers from all over the world who were grounded in Canada during the wake of 9/11, and the small Newfoundland community that invited these ‘come from aways’ into their lives.
On the surface, there’s little to this show… an onstage band, some trees, a few chairs and a revolving stage. But if any show is going to prove that a little says a lot, then it’s this one. A tight cast of twelve bring the space to life, set to a soundtrack of folk music with a theatrical twist. Hundreds of tales from Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 are condensed for a handful of characters who clearly and seamlessly tell a story of humanity in the face of adversity.
Despite each performer portraying several roles, there’s no confusion as to who’s who. A combination of precise writing, simple costume adjustments and quick accent changes ensure you stay on track. Even the lighting plays an important role in making the story flow, highlighting the action carefully. This is a show that exquisitely combines the skill of every backstage and onstage role to give a masterclass in storytelling. And what an important story it is too.
To say this musical is an emotional rollercoaster is an understatement. From joyously celebrating the union of two strangers, to sobbing over the death of a loved one. You experience every extreme in the 100 minutes, even crying with laughter over a group of hygiene-conscious cardiologists (toilet humour at its finest!) It seems a lot to cram in, but it works. The juxtaposition just hammers home the point, although the piece could do with a few moments of breath after some of the more sorrowful numbers. The lyrics are witty with humour and poignant with emotion; coupled with harmonies that literally bring tears to the eyes, this is a score you won’t forget in a hurry.
The cast is equally memorable, and it’s impossible to focus on one performance above another. There are no leads – from switching accents and characters at speed, to their passionate vocal moments, this is a true ensemble cast and here we have the strongest, most versatile ensemble in the West End. The brilliant band even have their moment. Enough said.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein make their mission clear from the start: their book and lyrics are here to provide a moving and important message, while Christopher Ashley’s direction and Kelly Devine’s staging are going to make you damn well listen and learn from it.
Here’s a show that gives life instead of taking it away. In a world that sometimes seems incomprehensible, Come From Away provides that little piece of light that keeps the human spirit going in the darkest hours. The show’s true story is one that we can learn from now just as they did almost twenty years ago, and likely will for many years to come. It may be booking until September but its spirit could run for centuries.
“Tonight, we honour what was lost. But we also commemorate what we found!”
Come From Away is booking until September 14 at The Phoenix Theatre, London. Buy tickets online here.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy