On paper, Come From Away looks wince-inducing. A musical set against the backdrop of 9/11 following the story of people stranded in a small town in Newfoundland when their flights were forced to land there after US airspace was closed following the attacks looks like a terrible idea. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I was living in Canada on 9/11 and the story the show tells is part of the narrative I watched unfold as I (like everyone else) spent day after day glued to the news. Given the magnitude of the events behind the events the show portrays, it’s easy to assume a musical covering this territory would have to be essentially reductive, that a tidal wave of sentimentality about Canadian niceness, eh? would somehow wash away the horror everybody felt during that week.
Then I heard the Broadway cast recording, which – while it isn’t complete – includes enough material to challenge that original perception. Based on the album, I bought a ticket to the show’s London production – and, yes, I admit I was absolutely wrong. There are holes you can legitimately pick in Come From Away, but it works. It doesn’t trivialise the horror behind the events it portrays, the writers and director do a very careful job of keeping any sentimentality firmly in check, and the show, to my complete surprise, is a powerful snapshot of a moment in which the ground shook under everybody’s feet. We have some distance from those events now, and we’ve become used to seeing images from the surrounding events that at the time seemed to stretch our understanding of the word ‘unimaginable’. What Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show’s writers (they both wrote all of it, collaborating on book, music and lyrics) achieve is something quite difficult: without showing any imagery at all from any of the attacks, without wallowing in the nightmarish scenes the whole world saw on the news, they manage to evoke how it felt to wake up in a world that had been suddenly and irrevocably changed by a series of grotesque acts of violence. Even more remarkably, they manage to show people finding strength and humanity in the face of that horror without bathing the audience in a vat of treacle – or rather, given that it takes place in Canada, maple syrup.
The show’s great strength is the illusion of simplicity with which Sankoff and Hein (and director Christopher Ashley) tell their stories, all of which are real stories drawn from interviews with residents of Gander, Newfoundland and the passengers and flight crews who found themselves stranded there. There’s a relatively bare stage with furniture brought on and off as required by the cast, and the actors slip seamlessly between characters (and accents, and between narration and dialogue) at the drop of a hat or a jacket or a prop. Everybody in the cast plays several characters; the show’s structure is quite intricate, but the storytelling is absolutely clear all the way through. Among a fine ensemble cast there are standout turns from Clive Carter as (among other things) Gander’s mayor, from Cat Simmons as a New Yorker trying to trace her firefighter son, from Robert Hands and Helen Hobson as two middle-aged people who find a mutual attraction after they are stranded together, and above all from Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, a pilot (in fact, the first female captain employed by American Airlines) whose flight is diverted to Gander. It’s to Tucker’s advantage that Me And the Sky, Beverley Bass’s song in the show, is by far the best thing in the score, and in her hands it’s a tour-de-force.
The rest of the score is… well, the kind word is ‘functional’. It works in context, the musical palette (largely rooted in folk-rock) is appropriate to the setting but not as varied as it could be, and some of the lyrics clunk a bit, and rely slightly too much on predictable rhymes. This is, though, one of those shows where any criticism of the technical aspects of the writing is more or less irrelevant, because the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts: look too closely at the score and you’ll start to pick holes, but – as I said – as a theatrical experience this show just works.