BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY, Phoenix Theatre

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BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY, Phoenix TheatreIt's the mark of a great show that it seems to speak directly to the present moment, even if that moment is years after its original creation. Come From Away passes that test with flying colours; in its depiction of an international community dealing with a crisis - including, raising a wry audience laugh, stockpiling loo paper - this 9/11 musical has plenty of resonance with our virus times. Except that the world would be a much better place if we all behaved a bit more like the people of Gander.

BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY, Phoenix TheatreBased on the remarkable true story of how 38 planes were diverted to Newfoundland when US airspace was closed following the 9/11 attacks, Irene Sankoff and David Hein's witty and profoundly moving show celebrates the generous locals who welcomed 7,000 strangers - 'come from aways' - into their hearts and homes. (Read our original review here)

There are fascinating parallels between that extraordinary situation and our current one, like authority figures considering how and when to call a state of emergency, or, in America's case to briefly shut out the world (although there's more logic in stopping air travel here than in President Trump's confused response to virus) - plus the difficulty of getting reliable news updates, and some falling immediately into racially discriminatory suspicion (again, hello Mr Trump...).

We also see a variety of coping methods in extreme circumstances, from those who want to maintain a sense of normality or embrace escapism through to people stuck in a state of grief or shock - and the conflicts that arise. But, in the case of Gander, the prevailing sense is of resilience, common sense, empathy and optimism. It's a pretty unbeatable model of humanity.

Christopher Ashley's award-winning West End production celebrates its first birthday with an influx of talented new cast members, whose interesting takes on established characters prove that this is a show welcoming to new voices - which will help keep it fresh long-term. It also becomes more of a family affair, with Mary Doherty's brother James joining her in the cast.

James Doherty takes on the Newfoundland mayors, giving us a Claude with calm, paternal authority, and an amusingly oddball, Irish whiskey-fuelled Mayor of Appleton. Sister Mary continues to be a pleasure as animal-lover Bonnie, playing well off new arrival Alasdair Harvey, whose more downbeat Doug fuels her determination.

Harvey is also wonderful as awkward Brit Nick, bumbling towards romance with Kate Graham's elegant Texan Diane. His Nick a memorably gauche sad sack, Harvey makes new lines pop, such as the forlorn moment when he calls his office to let them know he's OK, since he has no one else to worry about him.

Hamilton's Tarinn Callender makes a real impact as the new Bob - the New Yorker understandably nervous about being shot when casually told by the mayor to take people's barbecues for a cookout, but, met only with kindness, who soon embraces Gander life more than anyone. Callender's performance is incredibly engaging. He also pivots to deliver the show's most poignant moment: when a terrified African man, who doesn't speak the language, is reassured by an inspired local who communicates via Bible verse. "Be anxious for nothing" - words we would all like to hear right now.

As the warring couple of Kevins, Jonathan Andrew Hume has a superb dynamic with newcomer Mark Dugdale, the latter particularly great when his character goes fully local at the 'screech in', and anchoring the gorgeous multi-faith prayer number. Hume has also sharpened his portrait of Egyptian passenger Ali, unfairly treated with suspicion.

Continuing in their roles, Jenna Boyd and Cat Simmons beautifully honour the bond between Beulah and Hannah - both mothers of firefighters - while Harry Morrison is a charismatic cop and Emma Salvo even stronger in her roles of the novice reporter dealing with immensely difficult material, and the no-nonsense flight attendant in support of Captain Beverley Bass.

The captain herself is now played by Alice Fearn, succeeding fellow Wicked star Rachel Tucker. She brings velvety vocals and quiet gravity to this trailblazing pilot, and her voice soars like a plane in the standout number "Me and the Sky". Her phone calls home to husband Tom, which always bring me to tears, made me emotional in a completely different way here, since Fearn stresses Bass's determination to stay strong in the face of horror.

She also has enormous fun with Gander teacher Annette, particularly during her dream sequences - transforming various men into sexually charged fantasy figures. Mind, I think we'd all view the cardiologists devoted to cleanliness with similar awe right now.

But above all, this remains the best ensemble show in the West End - a company telling a story together, in Ashley's thoughtfully minimalist staging, supported by Kelly Devine's textured movement, Beowulf Boritt's hard-working set, and in particular the thrillingly expressive lighting from Howell Binkley. Credit also to the outstanding folk band, who rightly come on stage to finish the night in the spotlight.

I can't think of a show that we need more at the moment, nor one that manages to be simultaneously funny, sincere, specific to this lovely community and yet addressing universal concerns in such a heartfelt way. The addition of amazing new performers creates the perfect excuse - if one were needed - to return to the Rock.

Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre currently booking until 17 October

Watch video of two special Gander guests, the real Bonnie Harris and Brian Mosher, celebrating Come From Away's first birthday!

Photo credit: Craig Sugden

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From This Author Marianka Swain