Twenty years ago, an unscheduled apocalyptic film documentary suddenly appeared across our TV screens in the middle of the day. Documentary films not being my kind of viewing, I switched channels only to see similar images of planes crashing into buildings which led me to believe that it must be an anniversary of some historical disaster even though the footage was in colour instead of black and white.
I am of course talking about 9/11, an unforgettable major terrorist attack that is etched in our minds forever. Although I was miles away from the tragedy, news headlines, conversations and ripples of increasing restlessness around London made it an immersive experience for me. Since then I’ve doubted if anything could ever top that surreal day… well that’s until last year’s pandemic landed.
Come From Away, which first premièred in London two years ago, seems like the most timely show to see as we stir out of lockdown. The atmosphere outside the theatre on arrival was buzzing; it felt like a massive family reunion as everyone was in great spirits. It is as if everything that makes this world a terrible place has been eradicated and we’ve come to celebrate. The queue to enter the theatre snaked around the building, but instead of frustration or angst, there were excitable conversations amongst theatregoers and staff. The show started 15 minutes later than advertised due to new safety procedures, which is understandable, and it was also a full house. It was also my first full house theatre trip in 16 months.
It was great seeing two new cast members, Gemma Knight Jones and Sam Oladeinde being given a joyous welcome into the company. Both gave outstanding touching performances in their roles with their captivating voices.
Having waited 495 days to return to the stage, the reunited cast was greeted with raucous and electrifying applause, drowning out the first few opening lines. By the end of the first number, Welcome to the Rock, they had received a well-deserved heartwarming and thrilling standing ovation. I am still quite swollen with emotions as I recall it.
The musical chronicles real-life personal stories of 7,000 air passengers, whose journeys have been disrupted, and the people of Newfoundland who received them into their community. Thirty-eight planes from around the world had been diverted to Newfoundland in Canada when the USA closed its airport borders following the terrorist attacks. Upon learning about the events in America and the incoming bewildered passengers from all over the world, the people of Newfoundland opened up their homes, schools, gyms and incredibly, their hearts to welcome the “Plane People” for five days. The passengers had not been told the reason for the grounding until they arrived at their temporary homes. Neither did they know how long they would be grounded for.
Amongst the personal stories featured was of a worried grandmother whose firefighting son is missing in New York, new love forming between two mature divorcees who later on got married, a gay couple’s waning relationship and a renowned chef navigating through islamophobia in order to contribute his culinary skills to serve his new blended community. There are other micro stories highlighted simply by using a line of witty dialogue or brief heightened movements. The snappy pace of these stories meant that there are no drawn-out scenes and therefore doesn’t run the risk of becoming overindulgent. These stories have been shared by those who experienced the event, either as passengers, reporters or hosts.
There are many toe-tapping, hand-clapping and head-bobbing numbers performed as an ensemble, most notably the hit knee-up “Newfoundlander” which inaugurated everyone in the audience into the family. There are quieter heartfelt moments during breakout vignette scenes to focus on individual stories.
By the end of the first number, Welcome to the Rock, they had received a well-deserved heartwarming and thrilling standing ovation. I am still quite swollen with emotions as I recall it.
The dynamic cast play multiple roles, switching between diverse accents, managing symbolic costumes as well as props within a beat. It was great seeing two new cast members, Gemma Knight Jones and Sam Oladeinde being given a joyous welcome into the company. Both gave outstanding touching performances in their roles with their captivating voices.
Predominantly using wooden chairs, the set is minimal, but atmospheric. At times the choreography just required one movement in unison to rearrange the set. I found it impressive that just one swooping movement, combined with the lighting design, dramatically transformed the set into an aircraft, bus, school, eatery and community centre; proving that less is more.
You expect a show about kindness to be overly sentimental or tamed but the writing and songs have been passionately, yet honourably crafted into a highly entertaining theatre. It is fused with great humour and comic moments. Although some of the stories may have been tweaked in the name of creative license, this production is an honour to the Newfoundlanders.
I cannot help but make comparisons between the aftermath of 9/11 and the recent pandemic, especially when it comes to the selfless service people have performed. I imagine most people have heard touching stories of kindness during the pandemic even though they have been somewhat muted. That’s why more of these types of stories need to be shared. This is a great credit to the writers and production team.
I expect Come From Away to stay for decades to come and to make its mark as the number one inspiring musical about love, hope, resilience and restoration of faith in humanity.