The highly anticipated musical Come From Away leaves me dry-eyed at the Phoenix Theatre despite a very strong cast
“There’s nothing to do, nothing to see
Thank god we stopped at the duty-free”
I didn’t check the merchandise stand at Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come From Away but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were seeing branded tissues, such is the weight of expectation that comes with this musical, set in the days after 9/11. But rather than New York, the show is set more than 2,000 kilometres away in the remote town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes with 6,579 passengers were grounded in the aftermath of the attacks.
There, in a Canadian town that practically doubled in population overnight, we witness the unfolding of a tragedy but more significantly, the response of a community willing and able to do anything to extend the hand of friendship. Doors are flung open, shoulders proffered, bottles opened, an unquestioned barrage of hospitality seeking to envelop traumatised passengers who had been trapped for hours on their planes (in a pre-social media age remember), only to be released to find out the terrible news.
Inspired by the stories of real people, you can’t really help but have your heart warmed at some point. The Bronx resident who can’t believe people leave their doors unlocked, the middle-aged couple who find an unexpected romantic connection, the emotional succour provided by two women who find they are both mothers of firefighters. But the show leaves no stone unturned in its determination to be heart-warming that it occasionally tips too far.
The relentless depiction of the Newfoundlanders as benevolent yokels becomes cloying – the Celtic tinged drums and fiddles of the score demand that you feel good as we progress to the inevitable sequence in a pub. And the determination to show their open-mindedness rings horribly false when a gay couple find themselves welcomed with open arms in the unlikeliest of pubs, a tolerance that isn’t extended to their fellow Muslim passengers, their horrendously worsening experience reduced to just the shortest of scenes.
And ultimately for me, this is part of the main problem with Come From Away. To buy it into here in the UK, you have to surrender to something of the 9/11 mythology, buy into that is acclaimed as its universal message when in reality its a North American one. The 10 years later scene really stands out here, coming too close to suggesting everything is fine now rather than acknowledging the catastrophic changes it has wrought on society.
This is to take nothing away from the often excellent work in Christopher Ashley’s production, and its pleasingly diverse cast (in body type as well, for once). Kelly Devine’s musical staging is beautifully fluid, Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design allows for speedy but elegant shifts of locations, and performance levels are excellent – Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, David Shannon and Rachel Tucker all standing out, Cat Simmons too.
But I didn’t cry once. And I cry at anything, every episode of Call the Midwife. I even teared up describing an episode to someone this weekend. And that’s as much about the stories that Come From Away doesn’t tell, as much as the ones that it does.