Welcome to the Rock

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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.

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Fasten your seatbelt…

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Actually, this time the ride could be bumpier. In describing Ivo van Hove‘s fascinating stage adaptation of the classic 1950 backstage drama All About Eve, it’s possibly helpful to start by defining what it isn’t: while it sticks very close to Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s (peerless) screenplay, it’s not precisely a straightforward translation of the film to the stage. That screenplay is packed with endlessly quotable zingers and the film starred Bette Davis, who could deliver a zinger like nobody else, but if you arrive at the Noel Coward Theatre expecting a camp bitch-fest you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be disappointed, too, if you’re expecting a comedy, because van Hove directs his cast to play down the laughs. And the source material should probably make this a given, but if you’re looking for emotional catharsis this isn’t the show for you. It’s utterly gripping, but you won’t be moved.

What you’ll get, in fact, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an adaptation of this particular film by this particular director, and if there’s any criticism it’s that the evening could use a few more surprises. There’s a blank, stylised set and cooly stylish lighting by Jan Versweyveld, the action isn’t located precisely in period, there’s anachronistic electronic music between (and sometimes during) the scenes (the composer is PJ Harvey), and van Hove elicits very fine but impeccably restrained performances from his leading actors. It’s a smart, elegant, ice-cold presentation of the material, a surgically-precise theatrical meditation on the nature of celebrity and the space between the private and public spheres. There’s plenty to think about, and plenty to admire, and for some people that’ll be enough. It was for me. Some, though, will undoubtedly wish there’d been more fireworks, more heat, less to think about and more to feel.

That’s true, too, of the two above-the-title star performances. Yes, this is a star vehicle, and yes, there’s stellar work here from Gillian Anderson as established star Margo Channing and Lily James as the scheming Eve Harrington, who insinuates her way into Margo’s household and then uses her newfound position as a base-camp as she sets out to claw her way to stardom. Anderson is a formidable stage presence, absolutely convincing as an old-fashioned STAR, and manages to offer a completely fresh, consistently fascinating take on the role, which is a more difficult task than you’d think when at least two-thirds of the audience can probably imitate most of Bette Davis’s most famous line-readings from the film on command. She’s simultaneously regal and vulnerable, and a sequence in which she looks in her dressing-room mirror and, via the miracle of Alex Uragallo’s video animation, her face (projected on a screen above the stage) appears to age before our eyes is one of the production’s few genuinely moving moments. James, for her part, knows how to deploy her essential sweetness to lethal effect; her wide-eyed enthusiasm is totally plausible until the mask drops and we see the ruthlessness behind Eve’s ingenue act.

There’s strong work, too, from Monica Dolan as Karen, the playwright’s wife who finds herself caught up in Eve’s schemes against Margo, and from Stanley Townsend as sharp-tongued critic Addison DeWitt. Too many of the supporting cast, unfortunately, fade into a kind of blur against the technical cleverness of van Hove’s staging: as your attention moves between screens and the stage, between the apron and some corner at the back of the set, between public space and private space which we’re shown from an angle via live video, there’s not much room to appreciate whatever nuances there may be in the individual performances. Nobody is bad, but even such reliable presences as Julian Ovenden (as director Bill Sampson) don’t get room to make much of an impression.

What’s left, once you cut through the cleverness of the staging, is the cat-and-mouse between Anderson’s Margo, James’s pretender-to-the-throne, and Monica Dolan as the woman caught between them. They’re worth the cost of the ticket and two hours of your time – but if you know the film, you’d be forgiven for expecting a roller-coaster ride, and that’s not what this is. It’s a fascinating piece of theatre, and you’ll be talking about it for hours afterwards – but if you want a white-knuckle experience, look elsewhere.