Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre

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Rachel Tucker in Come From Away (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Operation Yellow Ribbon was the name given to the organised effort to divert civilian planes in the immediate wake of the September 11th attacks in the US in 2001. Thousands of passengers were housed in Canadian towns, most notably the town of Gander, Newfoundland, which saw its population double overnight. The story has repeatedly captured the imagination of dramatists, having been adapted into a book, a television miniseries, a film and a radio play. It’s only natural that a musical would come along. Come From Away (named for the Newfoundland catch-all term for non-Newfoundlanders) is a musical by Canadian husband-and-wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who are responsible for the show’s music, lyrics and book, and is the distillation of interviews conducted with locals and passengers on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

Staged on a bare space with little more than chairs and a revolve, the 12-strong ensemble play both passengers and residents of Gander in a clear and fluid style, a testament to the deft direction by Christopher Ashley. The score, a pleasantly anodyne collection of Gaelic-inspired folk is backed by a live on-stage band, all pounding bodhran and acoustic guitar, and sung with gusto by the cast to create a palatable but ultimately unmemorable soundscape.

The creators have stated emphatically that they didn’t set out to write a 9/11 musical, this is instead a 9/12 musical. And it certainly feels that way – the drama and tension of the unfolding attack is kept very much at a remove, with only a few concrete links to it during the show – a passenger with a missing firefighter son, a pioneering pilot who’s grown to see the thing she loves most used as the weapon in a horrifying act, but by and large we are focused on the displaced passengers and the town struggling to accommodate them, which of course it manages to with no shortage of quirky smalltown antics and homespun wisdom.

The passengers depicted include a cynical New Yorker who’s initially afraid to leave his wallet out of sight, a gay couple with differing views about their time in small-town Purgatory, and two strangers separated by the Atlantic Ocean, who spark romantic interest in each other. Their varying personalities naturally affect the rate at which their hearts ultimately open to the compassion and hospitality of the beleaguered townsfolk. In a curious quirk of dialectic evolution, the Newfoundland accent and dialect bear many similarities to the Southern Irish accent, meaning it transplants especially well to a British audience.

Playing out over the course of four days, the story is one of displacement – stranded with nothing to do but absorb the horror of unfolding events, things play out in the show at a believably languid pace. There is no antagonist, no stakes, no real plot. In truth, not much happens. They arrive, they stay, they leave, with the real change happening elsewhere. While it’s commendable that Sankoff and Hein didn’t attempt to force drama where there was none, it’s equally difficult to believe that in real life things played out this pleasantly. Any hints of conflict in the show – a brief nod to Islamophobia or homophobia, for example, are swiftly countered with the all-encompassing love of the townsfolk, neutralising them as plot points. Save for a bus strike that is swiftly set aside for The Greater Good, the town of Gander is portrayed as a conflict-free idyll. The show closes with a barnstorming ceilidh set from the band that whips the audience into a euphoric frenzy. Introspection is cast aside for celebration and self-congratulation.

In truth, Come From Away left me cold. Not because I doubt the singular act of generosity that inspired it. As long as there are times of crisis, our ability to set aside differences and help one another will keep coming to the fore. Rather than trusting the audience to tease out the inherent beauty of an extraordinary moment in history, it is smothered in sentimentality and weaponised feel-goodery. In its limited, crowd-pleasing scope, Come From Away frames humanity as an endless wellspring of love and kindness, to an almost-censorial degree, which is a questionable choice in a show so adjacent to 9/11. While it’s understandable that turbulent times require strong doses of optimism and hopefulness, Come From Away is a missed opportunity to remind ourselves that the human capacity for love is too often only summoned by our tendency to hostility.

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