Come From Away – Review – Grand Theatre, Leeds

Come From Away – Review – Grand Theatre, Leeds (1)

By Gail Schuster, April 2024

Come From Away is a relatively new musical, but one which has won a multitude of well-deserved awards since it first arrived in theatres, including the coveted Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards in 2019.

The production follows the events that happen in Gander, Newfoundland, following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The audience doesn’t see, nor isn’t told what those events are, but I am sure that most people who were alive then will remember where they were when they first heard about them.

As a result of the attacks, planes were diverted from American airspace and 38 were rerouted to Gander, bringing approximately 6,700 additional people to the island, almost doubling the local population. Inhabitants of the island sprang into action setting up temporary accommodation in schools, gyms, and church halls. They donated clothes, bedding, cooked food, let people use their phones, take showers in their homes, and had people move in with them, but accepted no money.

Come From Away – Review – Grand Theatre, Leeds (2)

“Moves at pace”

Personal stories are interlaced amongst the overarching narrative of the five days people were stranded in Gander, and how the community pulled together to look after them. Like the mother whose firefighter son was missing at ground zero, a couple who met and fell in love, a gay couple who were concerned about how they would be received in a small town and a Muslim chef called Ali, whose treatment by other passengers and officials is a portent for the Islamaphobia which has dogged western countries in recent years.

Other threads throughout the show follow certain islanders, like the Mayor, Claude Elliott and Bonnie Harris who worked in Gander’s animal shelter. Bonnie realised animals would be in the holds on the planes and although people weren’t allowed to take their luggage off, she got them off the planes and cared for the 19 animals, including a diabetic cat and two bonobo chimpanzees, one of whom was pregnant.

The many talented actors worked incredibly hard. They all seemed to be on the stage almost constantly, switching between roles and characters, being an islander or a passenger, all singing, dancing, and speaking.

The simple yet effective set, by Scenic Designer, Beowulf Boritt, remains the same throughout the show. There is a wooden floor and back wall which opens to be an airplane hold, and tall trees flank the sides of the stage, a nod to Newfoundland’s forest, amongst which sit the musicians. The narrative moves at pace, from bar to bus to airplane interior and so on. These changes are managed by clever choreography with chairs. The lighting, by Howell Binkley, directs the audience where to look and changes the mood as appropriate.

Come From Away – Review – Grand Theatre, Leeds (3)

“Emotional journey”

The performance starts off with ‘Welcome to the Rock’ which is a lively number interspersed with people talking about their ordinary daily activities. Like some other pieces from the musical there is an Irish feel to it. Another song I particularly enjoyed was ‘Screech In’ which is about the initiation that newcomers must do in order to become a Newfoundlander. Prayer is cleverly done, starting with the prayer of St Francis, Lord, Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace, and which then moves through Jewish, Islamic and Hindu prayers. It demonstrated the variety of languages spoken and different traditions that the islanders were accommodating as well as showing how people turn to religion to help them through difficult periods in their lives.

The production takes the audience on an emotional journey which visibly left some people moved, but which manages to balance this with being uplifting and humour is used sensitively throughout. The audience absolutely loved it and were on their feet immediately at the end.

It was fabulous entertainment and one which I would happily go and see again in a heartbeat.

‘Come From Away’ is at Leeds Grand Theatre until 11th May


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