Review: Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre

September 11th, 2001: while the world was watching the horrifying events taking place in the USA, a very different story was beginning in the Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. With American air space closed, the locals opened their homes and hearts to 7,000 stranded passengers, working tirelessly for five days to feed, clothe and house their terrified guests, and proving that even in the very darkest of times, the best of humanity can still shine through.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

This is the story told in Come From Away – a funny, moving and uplifting new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Having won best musical awards across North America, the show now arrives in London where, if there’s any justice, it’ll prove to be just as successful.

I might as well admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Come From Away ever since I first listened to the Broadway cast recording about a year ago – but while the soundtrack is great, the show itself is on another level altogether. It may have come out of North America, but like its cast of characters the show’s message is universal, and at a time when the news is full of doors being slammed against those who need help, it’s a story we all need to hear – especially when it’s told as powerfully as this.

Mirroring the events and community that inspired it, Christopher Ashley’s production is a seamless team effort, in which every cast member works incredibly hard with the resources at their disposal to produce something quite wonderful. There’s not a hint of ego; despite the amount of stellar talent on stage, no one actor ever feels more or less important than any of the others – so all I can say is that (deep breath) 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 are all outstanding.

Nor are there any fancy sets or special effects – armed with little more than a few chairs and a couple of simple wardrobe changes, the company bring to life hundreds of real people and stories, giving each one of them the care and respect they deserve. Nick and Diane, who met and fell in love during their time in Gander; Beverley Bass, the pioneering female pilot devastated at seeing the thing she loves most used as a weapon; Hannah, the mother desperate for news of her son, a New York firefighter; Unga, the pregnant bonobo chimp… any one of these or countless other true stories featured in the show would make a powerful narrative all on their own. Put them all together and the emotional impact is off the scale.

The score, as you’d expect, comes straight out of Newfoundland; with Alan Berry’s excellent band on stage throughout, we could easily be down at the legion with the locals (particularly at the end – whatever you do, don’t leave at the curtain call). Here again it’s all about the ensemble; there’s only one solo number in the whole show, and even that ends up featuring half the cast. The whole production overflows with enthusiasm, generosity and community spirit – the very qualities displayed by the people of Gander back in 2001 – and if it doesn’t send you home with a smile on your face then to be honest I doubt anything will.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Come From Away has everything the world needs right now: infectious music, great performances, a fascinating true story, and a much-needed message of hope, kindness and acceptance. It’s a love story, a comedy and a celebration of Newfoundland spirit and culture – and yet it never loses sight of, or respect for, the tragedy at its heart. If you want to laugh, cry, dance and (however briefly) feel a little bit better about the state of the world, do yourself a favour and go and see this show. I’ll probably see you there.

Come From Away is at the Phoenix Theatre until at least September (hopefully much, much longer).