London Culture: Come From Away Theatre Review

Please note: I was given free tickets to see ‘Come From Away’ in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

‘You’re writing a show about giving people sandwiches? Good luck with that!’ was what Reg Wright, President and CEO of the Gander International Airport in Newfoundland told Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the Canadian writers of the remarkable, surprise-hit musical, Come From Away.

Come From Away tells the story of the hundreds of passengers who were flying to the USA on September 11th, 2001, and who were diverted to Newfoundland in the chaos following the terrorist attacks. We all remember what we were doing that morning the actors hum as the show opens, and a shiver goes through the audience, as we too remember. I was 14 years old, living on Long Island, New York, when my Dad called home from work early in the morning and told my Mum and me to turn on the TV. I’ll never forget that day and those immediately following the attack, where everywhere you went the news was blaring from a radio or TV screen, and shock and horror reflected in every face you met.

Everyone has a story to tell about where they were that terrible day, and in Come From Away, Irene Sankoff and David Hein explore the incredible true story of the 7,000 stranded passengers in Newfoundland. When 38 airplanes were diverted to Gander airport after the 09/11 attacks, the 10,000 residents of the Newfoundland town rallied to welcome the frightened and confused travellers. The Newfoundlanders opened their hearts and their homes to strangers for five days before the planes could fly again, and in the face of violence and terror showed compassion, humanity and respect that would never be forgotten by those stranded so far from their loved ones and their homes.

Come From Away theatre review
The cast of Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy. Photo source.

In Come From Away, a cast of twelve switch roles seamlessly, playing parts as the local Newfoundlanders, as well as the stranded travellers, which heightens the sense of easy integration between the two groups. Although this is a musical very much about the importance of community, a few individual storylines emerge: a divorcee from Texas (Helen Hobson) finds herself drawn to a British oilman (Robert Hands) who takes a seat next to her (in real life, the couple ended up marrying); a mother (Cat Simmons) confides her overwhelming anxiety about her son, a New York fireman who is missing, to a sympathetic and caring Newfoundlander (Jenna Boyd); and a veteran pilot who blazed a path for female pilots (Rachel Tucker) reflects on her feelings about flying in the wake of 09/11.

Despite the heart-wrenching storylines, Come From Away never crosses the line into saccharine sentimentality. There is an honesty to this production that surely stems from Hein and Sankoff’s dedicated research. They distilled the dozens of interviews they had with both the Newfoundlanders and the airplane passengers into Come From Away, and each song and speech is shot through with the voice of authenticity. Harder subjects aren’t dodged: at the end of the show, the terrified mother learns her firefighter son died, and another passenger, travelling from the Middle-East, is treated with suspicion and subjected to a full-body search before being allowed to finally board his plane.

Come From Away theatre review
Robert Hands and Helen Hobson in Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy. Photo source.

Come From Away shows how simple acts of kindness in an extraordinary moment can make an incredible impact. It highlights the power of community, as well as the importance of individual acts of compassion. In their article about writing Come From Away, Sankoff and Hein quote Shakespeare: ‘how far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ As well as offering a heartfelt homage to everything that was lost on 09/11, Come From Away offers a vital message for the present: individual actions can impact in the world, and we all have the ability to show a little more kindness to those whose lives we touch, albeit fleetingly.

Both my Mum and I so enjoyed seeing Come From Away, which we agreed is the best musical we’ve seen for a long time. Judging by the enthusiastic standing ovation the cast received on the night we went, the rest of the audience loved it too!

After huge success on Broadway, Come From Away is now showing in London’s West End. Tickets to the show may be purchased here.