Saturday, 14 September 2019

REVIEW: Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre

“On the northeast tip of North America on an island called Newfoundland there's an airport. It used to be one of the biggest airports in the world and next to it is a town called Gander…”

It’s September 11th, 2001. The people of Gander see their lives turned upside down as 38 planes are diverted to land at their airport following the horrors of the plane bombings into the World Trade Centre buildings in New York City. Almost 7000 “plane people” from all around the world find themselves frightened, exhausted and far away from home. Come From Away tells their story and how the Newfoundlanders rallied together to make them feel as close to home as they could during their stay. 

This week marked the 18th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, so emotions were high at the Phoenix Theatre as the show began. This was my first visit to the show and I was there with very high expectations but was not once disappointed. 

Come From Away demonstrates in perfect form that “less is more”. It’s raw and organic, so much so you are plunged into such depths of your creative imagination without once feeling like you’re having to work to create a spectacle in your own mind. You are immediately sucked into this small-town atmosphere with a rhythmic heel-banging, folk-style opening number that sets the tone perfectly. The set design emulates the views of Gander being little more than “darkness and trees” beautifully, while the costumes offer us a glimpse into the time-capsule lifestyle of Newfoundlanders as they sport some glamorous combinations of woollen waistcoats, plaid shirts and clompy leather boots. 

The show runs at just under 1hour 40minutes without an interval, immersing us deep into the production with no opportunity for respite (not that I wanted it to stop at any point - I would have stayed sat for another hour quite happily!) which is testament to Christopher Ashley’s direction, as well as the remarkable cast performances. There is multi-roling across all the actors as they tackle roles of Gander locals and plane people alike, with some actors playing up to five roles each. 

With Book, Music and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this cast are
allowed to shine through big, anthemic chorus numbers designed to rouse every emotion possible in the audience. “Prayer” combines a mixture of religious hymns in a stunning musical highlight of the evening, alongside Cat Simmons’ heart-wrenching interpretation of “I am Here” and Rachel Tucker’s knock-it-out-of-the-park version of “Me and The Sky” where her sensational belt we all love so much is allowed to fly high. 

Come From Away manages to weave several smaller stories together into the undercurrent of the bigger picture offering us beautiful tales of romance; the new ones, the failing ones and the fantasised ones as well as tastefully handling more complex issues such as Islamaphobia, homophobia and racism. Ali, an Egyptian Masterchef from one of the planes (played powerfully by Jonathan Andrew Hume) recalls a painfully uncomfortable experience as he attempts to fly home after the events of 9/11 and leaves the audience wincing in their seats. The story is so superbly put together, there really is nothing else like it on the circuit at the moment. 

Come From Away is equal measures of heart-wrenching and life-affirming; it is a celebration of life and all it entails. This production is free from glamorous embellishments and simply shows us the beauty of human nature when people rally together to support one another. I’m sure it’s as relevant and powerful now as it ever will be. It’s a must-see piece of theatre and worth all the hype you’ve undoubtedly heard. 

Review by Harriet Langdown 

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Seat: F21, DRESS CIRCLE | Price of Ticket: £69.50 (Plus Booking Fee, Via ATG)
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