Don’t Stop Believing
Following on from its runaway success on Broadway, and in its native Canada, the award winning musical “Come From Away” makes its European debut at The Abbey Theatre before setting off on its European tour. Something some consider to be something of a coup and have eagerly awaited. Others though are less generous. Indeed, “Come From Away” has found itself carrying some considerable baggage not of its own making since it first debuted in 2013. For some its true tale of Newfoundland islanders welcoming 7000 stranded passengers in the days immediately following 9/11 speaks directly to the Syrian refugee crisis. Others argue that welcoming the temporarily displaced for five days is not the same as tackling a refugee crisis. For others it's little more than the West giving itself a privileged pat on the back, making us all feel good about our humanity without having to actually do anything to help our fellow humans in need. And what of some ironic rumblings in sections of the Irish theatre community over others coming over here and taking our jobs? It's a lot of weight to place on one productions shoulders. Thankfully, like the unsung heroes it sets out to sing about, “Come From Away” is more than up to the task of handling the overwhelming it didn’t ask for, of celebrating life in the face of adversity, and of offering some much needed light in the dark.
Those familiar with Rex Ryan’s excellent one man show Pilgrim, written by Philip Doherty, will already be familiar with the narrative nuts and bolts of “Come From Away.” In which residents of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, and its surrounding villages, offer assistance to 7000 stranded passengers forced to land on their doorstep following the closure of American airspace immediately after 9/11. Gander, played here as a sort of Canadian Hicksville in the tradition of Bedford Falls, suddenly finds itself overwhelmed when 38 planes are forced to land at their ill equipped airport and inadequately equipped town. Amidst the gentle hustle of their daily lives, Gander’s small town community suddenly find themselves responding to panicked passengers, some trapped on planes for over 28 hours, for whom the only thing worse than not knowing what’s going on is knowing what’s going on in New York and at The Pentagon. Over the course of five life changing days in which cods are kissed, hockey is cancelled and homes are opened to make the homeless welcome, life refuses to bow down to the unimaginable horror and adversity that brought them all to this place. Instead, the residents of Gander open their hearts, shops, barbecues and school buses wide, going above and beyond in offering care, dignity and welcome to the displaced, embodying a generosity of spirit that has since become legendary.
With books, lyrics, and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, “Come From Away” shares something of a passing resemblance to the Tony award winning “Once,” with locals building relationships with non-nationals, both developing new understandings, all played out against an Irish heavy soundtrack. Indeed, part of “Come From Away’s” joy lies in its infectious music, in which Sankoff and Hein have managed to capture something of a full fledged trad session following a late night lock-in. With haunting tin whistles supporting country style ballads and laments, all juxtaposed with bodhran driven beats underscoring Dropkick Murphys, Pogue’s styled anthems played live on stage, clapping and foot tapping soon become impossible to resist. Kelly Devine’s smart musical staging sees simple stamping motions, like the start of a soft spoken haka, establishing a sense of tribal unity from the get go that becomes repeated throughout. Christopher Ashley’s superb, flowing direction keeps everything beautifully fluid on Beowulf Boritt’s oft revolving stage, which uses little more than shifting chairs and tables set against a wooden backdrop to terrific effect. All of which Howell Binkley’s lighting design illuminates to perfection.
Textually, “Come From Away” is no slouch either. Balancing the sentimental with just the right hint of severity, “Come From Away” delivers a lot more than just an emotional sugar rush, acknowledging heartbreak, pettiness and religious intolerance while it makes friends of the world. Sankoff and Hein’s short, snappy, fast paced scenes allow nothing to settle or become overindulgent, with its twelve strong, gender balanced cast barely getting a moment during sharp transitions between scenes and character. With all cast members playing both Islanders and Plane People, Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon, Cat Simmons and Rachel Tucker prove to be irresistible, from singing right through to accents, ensuring “Come From Away” delivers top class entertainment every step of the way.
A cracking good musical that gallops along at a rousing pace, with just a little more tinsel “Come From Away” would make for the perfect Christmas classic. For it overflows with all the generosity of human kindness you could possibly ever wish for to help make the season bright. If, for some, it’s multi-cultural wonderfulness offers little more than commercial escapism in troubling times and has changed nothing, that fails to recognise “Come From Away” as a refusal to concede and a celebration of what we yet can be. A sustained act of hope in the face of rising hate, xenophobia, and homophobia. And hope is always the first act of defiance, making it the perfect place to start. Even if we’re always having to start again. And again. In which case, go see “Come From Away” again and again. For “Come From Away” captures the light that just won’t be extinguished. An all thriller, no filler, feel good musical, “Come From Away” inspires you to hope again in what’s best in all of us, all the while ensuring you have a great time doing so.
“Come From Away,” with books, lyrics, and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, presented as part of Avolon Winter Season at The Abbey Theatre, is an Abbey Theatre co-production with Junkyard Dog Productions and Smith & Brant Theatricals and runs at The Abbey Theatre until January 19, 2019.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre