This is a biggie. Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s new musical Come from Away took Broadway by storm in 2017, earning seven Tony award nominations – a certified commercial and critical smash-hit, and the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history as of October last year.
Christopher Ashley’s production is now being flown all over the world, with the UK production touching down at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre, after a stint at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. It’s in London until September at least.
Come from Away is set in the Newfoundland town of Gander in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when 38 planes were grounded there. Over 100, interval-less minutes, it follows the lives of the town’s inhabitants and the 7,000 stranded passengers during a difficult week.
But do Sankoff and Hein have a transatlantic hit on their hands? Are the critics captivated by its Canadian charisma? Does Come from Away land in London?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Sankoff and Hein’s musical undoubtedly deals with a tricky topic. Most critics are in one of two camps – five-starrers swept up in its wave of positivity, and three-starrers left slightly disconcerted.
Some pile on the praise. The show is “full of heart, truth and genuine emotion” according to Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★), “totally, soul-feedingly wonderful” according to Alice Saville (TimeOut, ★★★★★), and “incredibly pure, life-affirming and human” according to Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★).
“See the show in the West End, though, and it takes all of 10 seconds to be in its generous embrace,” writes Dominic Maxwell (The Times, ★★★★★). “You stay there for the next 100 minutes: laughing, tapping your foot, wiping away tears, feeling good about humanity – what a rare, welcome feeling that is these days – without ever feeling you’re just being sold gloopy musical-theatre good cheer.”
Others, though, have qualms. “I found something bludgeoning about its relentless celebration of civic virtue,” says Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★). “As a work of art, I found it lacking in complexity and argument.”
“Much as I consider its hour-and-40-minute non-stop evocation of that sleepless and rather surreal episode informative, inspiring and even stirring too, there’s a glossiness about it that smooths over the upset of that era-defining world event,” echoes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph¸ ★★★).
“Drama thrives on conflict and this has very little of that,” adds Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★), while Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★) isn’t entirely persuaded by a show that’s “relentlessly cheerful and ecstatically wholesome”.
One or two reviews sit somewhere in the middle. “There are moments when Come from Away feels like an advertisement for Canadian decency,” reflects Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “It also says little – perhaps too little – about the tragic events that convulsed New York on and after 9/11. But in the end its defining features are charm, energy and a real generosity of spirit.”
There’s less division over Come from Away’s score: most critics can’t help but love Sankoff and Hein’s original songs.
They’re “rousing, foot-stomping, all-company choruses” according to Saville, and are “propulsive” with “a crowd-pleasing warmth as well as a Celtic accent” according to Hitchings.
“The choral singing has such fervour that your body resonates like a struck tuning-fork,” relates Taylor. “There are strong Celtic connections in this part of the world, and the foot-stamping music resounds to the sociable swirl of uilleann pipes, penny whistle, fiddle and skin-drum.”
“The music itself is inflected with all kinds of worldly influences, but its primary flavour is toe-tapping Gaelic in reference to the Irish heritage of Newfoundland,” adds James FitzGerald (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “Showing that it’s possible to write a song about anything if you try hard enough, many of Sankoff and Hein’s lyrics focus on mundane things like getting drunk and twiddling thumbs on a grounded aeroplane.”
“Vignettes unfold to a springy, Celtic-influenced score played by an onstage band of eight whose musical timbre at times evoke the landscape of Once, a previous Broadway transplant to occupy this same theatre,” says Matt Wolf (The Arts Desk, ★★★★). “Eschewing the histrionics that beset, say, the Titanic anthem that gets affectionately sent up here, the score insists time and again on the essential strangeness of what is happening, and on every level.”
It’s only Marmion that isn’t sure about the score: he reckons that the Irish influences threaten “to turn the show into a Riverdance-style ceilidh”.
Christopher Ashley was something of a surprise best musical director winner at the 2017 Tony Awards, but London’s critics are quick to praise both his staging and the skill of his 12-strong ensemble cast.
“Under Ashley’s expansive direction, it flows from scene to scene without stopping for breath, giving a taste of the adrenaline, upheaval and exhaustion the Newfoundlanders must have felt,” writes Bano, while Taylor praises his production as “very supple”, and Maxwell admires the “adaptable, evocative environment” created by Ashley and his designer Beowulf Boritt.
“The niftiest touch from director Ashley is the seamless transitioning of a single actor between characters on different sides of the story – with simply the addition of a hat or cardigan,” opines FitzGerald. “Indeed, the spectacle is flawless all round – thanks to a vast list of producers and choreographers.”
“It feels so organic that you almost don’t notice how carefully it’s been crafted,” echoes Saville. “Individual stories are woven through rousing, foot-stomping, all-company choruses. Actors swap between playing locals and incomers with a fluidity that shows it’s just chance separating the two.”
Not many performers are namechecked due to the ensemble nature of the show, although Rachel Tucker is regularly lauded for her delivery of the show’s biggest number, Me and My Sky. She’s “utterly transfixing”, according to Bano, and “clarion-voiced”, according to Wolf.
Most critics are just impressed with the ensemble as a whole. They’re “quicksilver” and “charismatic” according to Maxwell, display “fierce commitment” according to Shenton, and are “unflagging and finessed” according to Cavendish.
“The ensemble is so skilled and so tight that it feels like a whole community in itself,” concludes Bano. “Almost all of the narrative is addressed by the characters directly to the audience, like talking heads in some kind of musical documentary. The cast switch between playing locals and visitors, hammering home that essential message – and who the hell cares if it’s corny – that wherever we’re from, we’re all human.”
It’s definitely good – the cast is excellent, the Celtic-tinged songs embracing, and the direction worthy of its Tony award accolade.
The critics are split, though, about Sankoff and Hein’s treatment of the situation itself: some reviews reckon they don’t dig deep enough into the event’s underlying issues; others heap praise on them for their hopefulness and humanity.
There are several three and four-star reviews then, but plenty of five-star ratings to plaster on the poster.