“The truth is it was a horror show from beginning to end”

Words spoken by director Oliver Stone as recently as 2016, when discussing the calamitous shockwaves sent indelibly across the world when those two fateful planes hit their targets on the morning of September 11, 2001. 

It’s fair to say that much of his ire and pall is aimed at what he calls the “terrible job” of the head offices, bigwigs and federal bodies in what he saw as a bungling, fumbled response to this unprecedented, world-changing attack. It explains much of the fairly a-political framing he applied to his 2006 World Trade Centre, which centres in as singularly as it can on the ground efforts of two police officers who became trapped in the rubble of the fallen towers (and escaped).

Widening the lens somewhat, much of mainstream media, art and culture seem to still struggle with the blunt reality of Stone’s razor; there’s little real glory, hope or joy to be found in that fateful Tuesday morning, outside of isolated anecdotes of heroics and sacrifice. Pivoting a plot of a film, novel or theatre production around 9/11 seems not so much a creative hot potato as a potential hand grenade of misjudgement and disrespect. And who can successfully dictate what tone should permeate a piece when a spectre of such morbid gravitas lingers so ominously in the background?

It’s here where Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come From Away, opening in London this week after an acclaimed Broadway debut last year, both succeeds and falls short. As an uplifting tale of community support, selfless come-togetherness and ‘love thy stranger’ mirth, the smiles will be broad and the tears no doubt plentiful. A winning cast - most on multi-role duty - stomp, sing and endear their hearts out in bringing to life what is the genuinely remarkable story of Gander; a small Newfoundland town whose population almost doubled overnight when no fewer than 38 commercial jets were grounded after the Towers fell.

The finest moments here are equal parts heartwarming and eye-opening, from seeing passengers left over 24 hours trapped on their grounded flights with little-to-no information on what was going on in a mostly pre-mobile age (“we learnt what we could from the BBC”), leading to stewardesses emptying the duty free and alcohol reserves. There’s Rachel Tucker’s first-ever female American Airlines pilot, and her equally first-of-its-kind all-female crew, stranded amidst the chaos. Or the lone efforts of a kind-hearted resident thinking to venture into the planes' holds to feed and comfort the pets and animals locked away within. Moments less reported and mulled over, yet deeply human and illuminating.

As the thick Irish tangs ring out and the days of stranded isolation and community outreach pass on, we come to take the residents of Gander and their new guests to heart.  Jenna Boyd’s kindly Beulah, musical theatre favourite Tucker sharing (rather than stealing) the limelight like the pro she is, the ever-dependable Clive Carter as not one, but several local Mayors, and Helen Hobson and Robert Hands’ ‘will they, won’t they?’ passenger duo - there isn’t a weak or uninteresting link in the ensemble. And at a brisk 100 minutes with no interval, Christopher Ashley’s direction keeps things fluid and punchy, smoothly abetted by Sankoff and Hein’s rhythmic, folksy score.

It’s funny, affirming, and frequently feels like a big, warm hug of a musical, reminding us of the innate goodness of people even in the darkest of hours. 

And yet, the spectre of its geo-historical context looms large, and often jars with the mostly perpetual merriment. Yes, the true story being depicted here is utterly joyous in its truthfulness, and the accuracy and research put in by Away’s creators bursts out of every scene (some of the shows biggest and most outspoken fans are indeed the original townsfolk and passengers it depicts).

And there are attempts to inject some sombre reality into proceedings; Cat Simmons plucks strongest on the heartstrings as concerned mother Hannah, desperate to find out if her son - a firefighter in NYC - is safe after the attacks, whilst Jonathan Andrew Hume’s Ali offers us a soupçon of the xenophobia that would erupt soon after.

Yet, despite these moments, it is at times difficult to marry the All-American (see: Canadian) gooeyness and lighter beats of this admittedly lovely show with the harsh reality of the time. The show’s only gay couple are depicted in mostly broad, audience-pleasing strokes, and odd vignettes such as an occasional flight of fantasy with a hunky pilot for Tucker’s Annette feel plucked from a far less classy and original production. 

It all comes back to that pivotal Sword of Damocles of 9/11 ‘entertainment’ - tone. True, it’ll have many reaching for their hankies come the finale, but Come From Away’s final beats are ones of overwhelming celebration and levity, when a braver, truer finish would have perhaps been a scene or two prior.

So come take a gander at, well, Gander, and you’ll likely leave feeling more than a little uplifted, having spent your evening in the company of a fine cast giving a touching story their all. In terms of being a powerful and fully realised piece of musical theatre that fully satisfies and judges its contextual promise, though, it’s all a little too light and frothy to feel definitive; a presentation that would have benefitted from being, ironically, a touch more grounded and a little less flighty.


COME FROM AWAY plays at the Phoenix Theatre, London, and is currently booking until 14 September 2019.

Booking Line: 0844 871 7615

More information / Book Online

Readers who submit articles must agree to our terms of use. The content is the sole responsibility of the contributor and is unmoderated. But we will react if anything that breaks the rules comes to our attention. If you wish to complain about this article, contact us here

Readers who submit articles must agree to our terms of use. The content is the sole responsibility of the contributor and is unmoderated. But we will react if anything that breaks the rules comes to our attention. If you wish to complain about this article, contact us here