Come From Away, Canberra Theatre, Thursday 8 June – Sunday 9 July 2023

Review by John P. Harvey.

Ladies and gentlemen, due to an accident in New York City, this flight will no longer be terminating in Seattle but has been diverted to Gander International Airport on the Canadian island of Newfoundland.  And for now, no flights out of Gander will be permitted.  Enjoy the rest of your flight, and have a good life.

This is the kind of announcement that, on 11 September 2001, passengers on hundreds of flights heading for various U.S. destinations heard with varying degrees of delight, shock, and horror.  What was going on?  Where was this little place to which they were being taken?  And, by the time they arrived there: were they being kidnapped, or held on suspicion?

Established initially in the middle of nothing much on the northeastern tip of nowhere much, Gander Airport became, in WW II, a strategic post for the Royal Air Force Ferry command, and, at the end of the war, a central node for commercial aviation, being the last fuel station before crossing the Atlantic.  The Newfoundland town of Gander had grown from its airport out.  But by 2001 the airport hosted only a few international flights daily.

That all changed on September 11, when 38 of the diverted flights, carrying a total of nearly 6600 passengers, turned toward Gander, a town of some ten thousand.

The people of Gander and nearby towns responded, contributing accommodation, food, clothing, and welcome.  In the musical at least, though, they faced a major problem: no transportation between airport and town, due to a bus strike.

As small communities do, though, people pulled together to help in any way they could, and in the process they created lifelong friendships with many of the passengers.

Come From Away steps up as a musical to tell the tale of the overrun of Gander by unwilling visitors, and it does so with panache and joy.  A versatile set conveying the feeling of being either right there in Gander or on a flight there, with a couple of doors leading to various places; well-timed lighting; and clear articulation and great singing with accompaniment by a live ten-piece band brought the musical dynamically to life.

With up to 18 people on stage at once, every speaking cast member taking several roles, the action — delightfully busy, whimsically choreographed, yet strangely intimate — rocketed the audience from song to scene to song, highlighting Gander’s genuine community spirit throughout.

In a pacy script that kept everybody amused, the songs — which Irene Sankoff and David Hein integrated into it perfectly — are amazing: very catchy numbers, sung well, energetically, and dead in tune, generally in four- or five-part harmony, though I’m fairly sure that at least one song had seven interweaving parts, and all beautifully balanced and clear.  And this was no standing choir: during all this, the singers were also coming down to earth; fearing for the future; falling in love; dancing with the furniture.

It was noticeable after a standing ovation that the departing audience chattered enthusiastically about the show, which evidently had left many feeling that they had experienced for themselves an event that had, despite everything, created something beautiful on that fateful day.

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