Before jet engines, aircraft travelling across the Atlantic from Europe had to stop for fuel on Newfoundland, an island on Canada’s most eastern tip, where a vast airport was built to receive all incoming flights. When the jet engine meant planes could do the journey all in one go, Gander airport became surplus to requirements. But no one ever got round to tearing it down.
On September 11, 2001, after hijacked planes hit New York and Pennsylvania, American airspace was shut down. All inbound flights were diverted, and 38 jumbo jets with almost 7,000 passengers landed at that airport in Gander, a town which only had a population of 11,000 to start with.
Gander welcomed these “come from aways” and looked after them for a week. The story caught the attention of Canadian husband and wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who interviewed residents of Gander and the people who had landed there, out of which they wove this soaring new musical.
Through Canadian folk tunes and simple storytelling, they’ve created something incredibly pure, life-affirming and human – it’s the best tonic there can be to a world that feels so divided at the moment.
Come from Away’s scope ranges from the inconsequential (finding enough people to clean the loos) to the most heart-hurting tragedies, all enacted by a fantastic cast of 12 people of every age, size and colour. Under Christopher 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.
But none of the characters gets short shrift. Cat Simmons and Jenna Boyd are brilliant as the woman waiting for news of her Manhattan firefighter son and the local woman who comforts her; there’s good work too from Helen Hobson and Robert Hands as the middle-aged Texan woman and the British oil executive who meet and fall in love. Clive Carter shines as the mayor trying to coordinate everything from different languages to different religions to working out what to cook. Rachel Tucker gets the show’s one big number, the story of how her character Beverley became a pilot, and she delivers it in a way that is utterly transfixing.
The ensemble is so skilled and so tight that it feels like a whole community in itself. 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.
Meanwhile, it never retreats from the conflict that is inherent in watching a group of people enjoying themselves during a national tragedy. For every warm, embracing scene – seeing the passengers become honorary Newfoundlanders with an initiation ceremony involving a shot of rum and kissing a fish – the horrors of that day keep piercing through.
It’s hard not to be moved by a show this strong, and one that proves how good intentions can pave the way to heaven, or at least a higher form of humanity.