Abbey Theatre, Dublin –until 19 January 2019 (before transferring to the Phoenix Theatre, London)
Guest reviewer: Damien Murray
As a former refuelling stop for trans-Atlantic flights, the remote town of Gander in Newfoundland was once well used to having many visitors on board passing planes. In 2001, due to its position and facilities, it unexpectedly found itself playing host to 38 international flights filled with 7,000 passengers of many nationalities during the horrific attacks of 9/11 on the North-Eastern region of the United States.
This is not a show about those atrocities, but rather a true story of generosity, gratitude and ultimate hope performed as a theatrical documentation of the unfolding events at Gander as a result of the attacks and the efforts of a small island population to help their fellow man in exceptional and demanding circumstances.
Ahead of its transfer to London at the end of January, it is, perhaps, appropriate that the European premiere of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s relatively new, but highly-acclaimed, award-winning musical, is being staged in Dublin as Newfoundland owes much of its music, language and culture to Ireland.
This fact is reflected in the show’s accents, humour and music, with a distinctly ‘celtic’ approach to the score, instrumentation and underscoring in this Abbey Theatre co-production with Junkyard Dog Productions and Smith & Brant Theatricals.
Playing a multitude of roles with a quick-fire change of accent, hat, shirt or jacket to convey each character, the hard-working and 12-strong cast – Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon, Cat Simmons and, returning to the city where she made her professional debut, Ireland’s own West End and Broadway star, Rachel Tucker – prove the perfect team for this exceptional ensemble piece.
Indeed, the captivating cast takes ensemble performance to a whole new and higher level in this factual, intense and heart-warming drama.
Performances here are of such a uniformly impressive standard, it is almost impossible to single anyone out for special praise, but it must be said that, with her commanding stage presence, quality vocals and passionate performance, it is no accident that one of Rachel Tucker’s main characters is, appropriately, that of the Captain.
By necessity, the casting is diverse to reflect the wide cross section of some of those who were caught up in the Gander situation with people of various shapes, colours and creeds being represented; each with their own story and circumstances and each dealing with the situation in their own way.
With Beowulf Boritt’s simple, sparse and static (apart from a stage revolve, which, thankfully, is not overused) set representing the remoteness of the forested island being cleverly lit by Howell Binkley’s mood-inspiring lighting, this production is greatly helped by Christopher Ashley’s no thrills direction and Tara Overfield-Wilkinson’s relentless choreography and movement to advance the evolving story in its 100-minute performance time, without ever losing the attention of its audience.
Because of the nature of its unfolding story, this unconventional musical benefits greatly by the absence on an interval to ensure no loss of momentum or continuity.
The show is also unusual in terms of the musical score, which mixes Celtic with folk and rock with the addition of a few ballads and, with tongue firmly in cheek, gives a musical nod to Titanic to add humour to the piece.
Apart from when they take centre stage for a bit of an international hoe-down during Screech In (highlighting the importance of music as an international language), the eight accomplished musicians, under Alan Berry’s musical direction, are discretely positioned at the side of the stage.
Musical highlights are dominated by the ensemble’s excellent choral work throughout, particularly in songs like Darkness And Trees, while the beautiful rendition of Prayer reinforces the commonality of music in religion.
Other highlights include Rachel Tucker’s moving showcase song, Me And The Sky, and the tender love song, Stop The World.
In the midst of mixed emotions, fear, confusion, panic, terror and tragedy, we find that camaraderie, friendship, tolerance, respect and humour are universal and all shine through in this story of interaction between strangers when they are thrown together in the most unusual of circumstances and when relationships survive and grow with random acts of kindness.
Human resourcefulness becomes second nature as all rally round to provide such practical essentials as food, clothing, accommodation, language interpreters, counselling, medical and spiritual care, money and special care needed for babies and animals that were on any of the grounded flights.
In addition to the positive feelings when they are all pulling together as one, a painful feeling of loneliness and emptiness descends on everyone immediately after they eventually leave to go home similar to that experienced at the end of an Irish wake.
This story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in a time of need is truly inspirational and this intense, gripping, emotional and heart-warming production perfectly captures the generosity of the human spirit and the hope that has been born out of tragedy to create an oasis of harmony in a world of confusion.
Come From Away runs at the Abbey Theatre until Sat 19th January 2019
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy