Come From Away is a love letter to the wonders of air travelling and being connected, of pilots and the warm welcome another person’s home can offer when lost and unprepared: In the era of chunky Nokia phones and Hugh Grant romcoms, a provincial airport somewhere in Newfoundland unexpectedly hosts thousands of passengers which were caught mid-flight when the terrorists attacks of 9/11 shut down all airports in the US for a couple of days.
While we witness the Canadians trying to take in the devastating news, to improve transport, food and refugee centres for what will be over 7000 unexpected visitors, up in the sky those still on flights rewatch Titanic and order more drinks – crew and passengers absolutely unaware of what will define the year 2001. Most who have now been on the plane for over 24 hours without an idea of why.
All actors have plenty of leading roles: Hairclips, caps, blazers and glasses allow them all to juggle several characters and are teaching a beautiful example of equality and fairness: This is ensemble theatre. The stage setting doesn’t change drastically either (think Hamilton but far more imaginative). Looking back, no favourite characters either: They all multiply to one big embrace of humanity, charity and trust, summarizing what these times desperately need.
On a less drastic note, handily, my Hamburg visitor and theatre buddy tonight is a Canada expert who explains afterwards that Tim Hortons is the local Starbucks equivalent (I had really expected this to be HappyCuppa but that’s another story) but the rest is self-explaining: The make-a-wish kids who are loving their improvised canoeing and campsite trips over the Disneyland visit they are missing out on, the kiss-the-fish initiation rituals, the Texan divorcee who for the first time experiences something meaningful on her own and the animal protectors celebrating the towns rather more exotic arrivals. You do not have to have been to Canada to want to go there now, especially when the band comes on stage for the final with the violin, accordion, flute and different drums.
What an evening, what a venue!
But Come From Away does not shy away from conflicts especially at border control. In the town of Gander multiculturalism so far meant neighbourhoods of Catholics, Protestants and other Christians – it takes some brainstorming and creativity to meet kosher, halal and especially vegetarian demands. More and more “plane people” arrive, most of them confused and shocked, some who do not speak a word of English, for whom this unplanned landing has been a first “Western” experience they never prepared for. Others handle it better but seem to have no way of understanding in which country they actually landed. Pointing out bible verses by number and hoping that they are numerated the same way in other languages helps to calm down pious minds but is sometimes not enough. It is a little miracle that this musical still balances its message of positivity and hopefulness while explicitly showing how hard it is when communication goes wrong and turns into paranoia during times of uncertainty. That this show is based on a real story is even more wonderful.
There is no interval and the show is over after 90 intense minutes with tears of laughter, joy, sadness and desperation, and we agree that not all tears on stage can have been acted. In the audience they are real for sure. Plenty of North American accents sound through the foyer when leaving the pretty venue, and we are have a good cackle when realizing that Les Mis (the last West End show we saw together) is probably only at their break by now: Come From Away is perfect for a theatre evening on a school night, after all day London strolls or during jetlag as well for those tourists whose English is good enough to follow a one and half hour marathon of sung/song? and spoken dialog. There is no denial that this is lyric-heavy show. We are already building up a list on who we will take with us next time.
***** out of 5 stars
Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley.
Having purchased the tickets two months in advance during a TodayTix sale, I paid £45 for each seat (10 and 11) in Row B. Final performance on 7 January 2023.