Thursday, June 15, 2023

Come From Away. Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Canberra Theatre. June 8 to July 9. Reviewed by ALANNA MACLEAN


Pilot Beverley. (Zoe Gertz)Photo: Jeff Busby

COME From Away is settling in for a solid few weeks run at the Canberra Theatre and a good thing too. 

 This intense and uplifting show pays a deep tribute to the people of the Canadian town of Gander and what happened in the immediate aftermath of Sept 11 when airspace closed down and planes needed urgently to be diverted.  

Newfoundland seems a wild old place with its own customs and traces of Norse settlement pre-Columbus but the plane passengers, nearly 7,000 of them, many international, not all speaking English, who land in that crisis find help some might not have expected. 

Gander is a small town. But from the first moments of the crisis people rise to what is needed. The voices and the characters come from intensive interviewing of those involved and workshopping into a highly affecting theatre piece, driven by the music of the place, not a traditional pit orchestra but a mob of musos on fiddle, on flute, on bodhran, on uileann pipes who sit casually at the back of the stage,. It’s verbatim theatre, often taken from the words of those who were there and it is sharp and funny and moving and driven by the music. 

The young radio reporter (first day on the job…), the mayor of Gander coping with the influx, the woman who stands up for the needs of the animals she finds travelling in the planes,  the passenger whose son is a firefighter in New York, the pair who are falling out of love, the pair who are being drawn together… It’s about the people and their stories in a moment of intense crisis. 

And there are showcase moments too. Hannah (Sarah Nairne) calls out to her missing son in New York in the passionate I Am Here, people of differing faiths join in Prayer to counter the rising distrust of Muslims and pilot Beverley (Zoe Gertz) passionately tells of her battle to become a female pioneer pilot in “Me and The Sky.” (Only to have 9/11 make Beverley and all pilots rethink…) 

Beowulf Boritt’s set evokes trees and woods with an occasional cunning door opening up to suggest planes and built places. It feels a little squeezed in the Canberra Theatre but it has atmosphere, enhanced by Howell Brinkley’s rich lighting design, a scattering of old chairs and tables and the cunning use of a revolve. 

You might end up seeing a certain similarity to “Titanic the Musical” in all this. Like that rather wonderful epic, “Come From Away” succeeds in respecting and evoking the central tragic event. The counter in both cases is the celebration of a basic humanity. Funny, intense and uplifting stuff indeed.