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The real-life stars of Come from Away: ‘Stiff upper lip? British audiences are whistling, hooting and going bananas’

(l-r) Actors David Shannon and Jonathan Andrew Hume with their real-life counterparts Kevin Tuerff and Kevin Jung. Photo: Craig Sugden

Come from Away, the latest Broadway import to hit the West End, is set in the immediate aftermath of the US terror attacks on 11 September 2001. Almost 40 planes – carrying 7,000 people – were diverted away from the US to Gander, Newfoundland – a small town in rural Canada, where they were forced to stay for the next five days while airspace remained closed.

The story of the kindness shown and the friendships formed between locals and the ‘come from aways’ became the basis of an unlikely musical hit. Following its 2017 Broadway opening, a fresh cast was assembled for the recently opened West End run. Here, we meet some of the them and their real-life counterparts to hear how their stories were brought to the stage.

Performer Rachel Tucker plays pilot Beverley Bass, who flew one of the planes that landed in Gander following the 9/11 attacks

Beverley is an impressive character, what is it like playing her?

Beverley Bass became the first woman captain for American Airlines in 1986. She’s a real hero because she was in charge of 200 people on this plane, stranded on an island, not knowing what was about to happen. There was a fear that there might have been more terrorists on the planes, so she had to lead these people and keep them calm. She did it so beautifully and effortlessly. I got to meet her when we did the show in Dublin. She loves the show, she’s seen around 130 times.

Is playing this role a challenge?

It is, because it’s real. This isn’t fairyland. I’ve played a lot of fairytale characters in my time, but this isn’t. It’s guttural, and people sense that. People think it’s going to be full of jazz hands but it’s not, it can’t be. Our director [Christopher Ashley] would always say: ‘Turn it down, it’s too hot’. It’s been so freeing as an actress, but to tell a story without ‘performing’ is one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do.

Diane Davis was a teacher in Gander at the time of the September 11 attacks and contributed to efforts to accommodate the so-called “plane people” – the 7,000 people whose flights were grounded in Newfoundland

How were you involved in the events in Gander in 2001?

On September 11, 2001, I was a mid-career teacher at Gander Academy, and I was one of many teachers in the region who responded. We all did what we could to the best of our ability but through some twist of fate, my name and personality has been combined with another woman, Beulah Cooper, to create this character – Beulah Davis – on stage. It’s an honour to see it done every night so brilliantly and to represent my community and my colleagues, although I still don’t really know what I’m doing here.

When did you first get involved with the show?

I was interviewed by the writers [Irene Sankoff and David Hein] at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Gander with a group of colleagues. They said they were researching a musical and I thought: ‘Isn’t that cute, he thinks this story is a musical.’ But a few years later they came back with producers and I offered them a tour of Gander Academy – the teacher in me wanted them to get their little show on stage. I had no idea what it would become.

Did you know all along that you were going to be a character in the musical?

No, that was a shock. When the musical came to Canada I bought tickets the first day they were on sale, but then I was invited to a brunch and also to a gala dinner, which I thought was really nice – all I did was give them a tour of Gander Academy. At the dinner Astrid Van Wieren [an actor in the production] came to the table, which I thought was exciting. In the middle of our conversation she said: ‘You do know I am playing you in the show, right?’ It was one of the few times in my life I have been totally speechless. I’m honoured and flattered and mystified to this day.

Performer Jenna Boyd plays several characters in the musical, including Beulah Davis

How have you found the audience reaction to the show in London?

Standing ovations are not the norm in England, we don’t give them away easily, but every night, without fail, we have had a full, three-tier standing ovation. In 19 years of performing I’ve never seen anything like it. The star of this show, is the show – the story that we get to tell, the music, the movement.

Does its message of kindness feel particularly pertinent now?

The tag line of our show is: I am an islander. Britain is an island, and we could stand to learn [from this show] exactly how to behave like an island.

Come from Away writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein: ‘Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s better’

Tom McKeon was a passenger on one of the planes that was grounded in Gander

You were initially sceptical about being involved with the show, is that right?

I met David and Irene in Manhattan because they said they wanted to interview me, but I didn’t have an idea what it was for. When they told me, I thought it was crazy. I told them how it could come across as insulting. I didn’t really follow it for years. They would always email saying they wanted me to get involved but I pretty much ignored the whole process for a long time.

What changed your mind?

Their gracious insistence that I be part of it. They are the sweetest people in the world, and they kept saying: ‘This thing is really taking off we think you should be involved’. So I finally did, but I’m so glad, especially on behalf of all the Gander folks in the play. They did something angelic.

Derm Flynn was mayor of Appleton, a town near to Gander, in 2001. He put up several people in his home during the five days that airspace was closed, including Tom McKeon

Did you ever imagine that this production would bring you here to London?

Never, it’s incomprehensible. I recently retired and I turned 72 the other day. The thought that I – my character – would end up dancing on the stage on Broadway, in Toronto, now in London, and then on to Australia, it’s amazing. I don’t think it was on our bucket list of things to do some 18 years ago when we had those people drop out of the sky for a five-day visit.

West End Come from Away cast: ‘Politicians should see our show’

Performer Nathanael Campbell plays a range of characters in the show, including Bob, which is based on Tom McKeon’s story among others

Has this been a unique process for you as an actor?

Unique is definitely the word. To know that it’s all real people, and to meet them, it’s been a wild ride. In the first couple of days of rehearsals it was tough because I was quite young when this happened so had a slight detachment to it. But it was really emotional at the beginning. We are lucky to have a show like this in the West End, and we’re lucky to have audiences really enjoying themselves. It feels like at the end of the show it is their opportunity to say thank you to these people, they have all been on this journey too.

British businessman Nick Marson was on a work trip to the US when his plane was diverted to Gander. There he met fellow passenger Diane, an American, and over five days began a relationship that has now lasted 17 years. They have been married since 2002.

You must have seen the show dozens of times now, but has it been emotional to see it performed in London?

Definitely, and even though we have seen it many times, there are still moments where we tear up. I’ve been so encouraged by the British response so far. I think they’re better than some of the other audiences – they laugh at different things in the show, and at the end when they leap to their feet, it’s very special. There hasn’t been a night without a standing ovation, people are whistling, hooting, going bananas. People perceive that the British have a stiff upper lip and you never know with a story like this whether it will translate across the pond, but it’s wonderful to see that [the show] has touched them.

Robert Hands plays Nick Marson in the musical, among other characters.

Were you worried that British audiences might not ‘get’ the show?

I’m not sure what I expected, but it still shocks me every night. There is a snap black out at the end of the performance and then there’s this roar. I have to force myself to smile because the noise is quite frightening. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say but it’s quite alarming.

Kevin Jung was aboard one of the stranded planes in 2001 with his then partner Kevin Tuerff. They are both characters in the musical.

What is your memory now about those five days?

I just remember how tremendous they were. The people of Gander wouldn’t let us pay for anything – food, water, internet, which back then with dial-up was pretty expensive. I was honestly worried that the small college was going to go bankrupt for taking care of us. They were reluctant to accept a thank you, so it’s always been our wish that the story would be told as broadly as possible so that they could get the recognition they deserve and other people could learn from the way they handled it.

When did you become involved?

I didn’t go to the 10th anniversary [where many of the original interviews took place], but Kevin T did, and a few months later I was looking at the internet and saw a show had been written about Gander. There were a couple of guys that were named Colin 1 and Colin 2 at that point, and I read a little further down and starting seeing things that had happened to me and things I had said and realised that it was me. It was pretty crazy.

Kevin Tuerff, so you are the reason the two Kevins are in this show?

Yes. I did go the anniversary, and there were loads of media there. I did several interviews with lots of media outlets but I spoke to [David and Irene] and I remember thinking that only the Canadians could make a musical out of this story. Six years to the month after that was when I first saw the production at Sheridan [a theatre college in Canada] and I loved it immediately.

Has the show changed a lot since then?

I would say there are still a lot of similarities. To be honest I never thought it would make it to Broadway, but I’m so proud to be associated with the show. We live in a time of such fear of the stranger, fear of the immigrant, fear of refugees, we need to see examples of compassion like this.

Come from Away runs at Phoenix Theatre, London, until September 14. Visit comefromawaylondon.co.uk  for full details

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