Come From Away Reviewed: at Leeds Grand Theatre Until 11 May

“The greatest musical of the 21st Century.” Maria Forryan

I’ve had the pleasure of watching many a theatre show in my life, but never has one had such a profound impact on me as ‘Come From Away’ did last night: and this wasn’t even the first time I’ve seen it!

In a world overpopulated with mediocre musical adaptations of rom-com films from the 1990’s, it is utterly refreshing to have a piece of theatre that is not only highly creative but also thought-provoking, hilarious and deeply moving. In one instant you are laughing out loud; the next you are sobbing quietly in your seat, hoping the stranger next to you doesn’t realise. But you needn’t worry….for I can guarantee that with this show they’ll be crying, too. 

I first of all fell in love with the soundtrack to this production, a rarity for me as I usually listen to books rather than music in my spare time. But the opening number ‘Welcome To The Rock’ came up on a playlist on a bike ride to work one day and I was instantly drawn into the story. The folk-style music, rapid change of characters and utter focus on the story that revolved around one of the most infamous days in human history instantly grabbed my attention. By the end of my bike ride home later that evening, I had listened to, and subsequently fallen in love with, the entire show (I’m a slow biker and it’s a steep ride home…).

During lockdown I was able to watch the original Broadway show on the Apple TV and was then able to appreciate the clever, minimalistic, quick-paced production style that complemented the music so well. In August 2022, in a rare weekend in London without the kids and time to see just one musical, ‘Come From Away’ was my production of choice, out of all the other glossy productions showing. And it most certainly did not disappoint, even after already having seen the Broadway cast on the digital recording. The show was just as fresh and emotive as the first time I saw it. It quickly moved up to one of the best productions I have ever seen. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw this production was coming to our very own Leeds Grand and I have spent the last year extremely excited, telling every person who loves theatre (and even those who don’t) to buy tickets. 

‘Come From Away’ is set in Gander, a small town of just 9000 souls in Newfoundland, on the ‘edge of the world’ as they call it: a harsh, remote part of Northern America, the ‘furthest place you’ll get from Disneyland’. Before planes could make it across the Atlantic on one tank of fue,l they used to stop in Gander, meaning this small town boasted one of the largest airports in North America. However, as airplane technology developed, the airport at Gander became mostly redundant, seeing on average about 6 planes a day land. On 11th September 2001 when the USA saw its worst ever terrorist attack take place, no aeroplanes were able to enter American flight space. Therefore, 38 planes, over 7000 people in total, were forced to land in Gander. For almost a week the town nearly doubled in size and what came out of this horrific event was evidence of the kindness and self-sacrifice that humans are able to show to each other. In the face of adversity, compassion flourished.

The only problem with seeing a production that you love so much and know so well is that you have such high expectations that you can often be left disappointed: a cast member not quite as strong as a previous one, tempo of songs not quite as you’ve heard them before. Well, I had absolutely no need to worry: this was one of the most polished productions I’ve ever seen. It was slick, creative, fast-paced and utterly entertaining. From the minute it started I was either wearing a massive grin from the sheer quality of the performance or crying from being so moved. 

 The set is minimalistic to allow for the quick scene changes, the stage instantly changing from a bar to an aeroplane with bright, harsh lighting used the represent the lights of the runway, representing the fear of the passengers on board the planes who land on the runway in complete confusion.

The band is on stage throughout the show and in the bar scene actually come and join the cast as they perform the rowdy song ’Screech In’. The energy and perfect timing of the musicians is evident throughout, and it was fantastic that they were given a chance to shine at the end when they performed virtuosic solos to the clapping and cheering of the audience. The beautiful music, created by Irene Sankoff and Daviel Hein (who also wrote the book and the lyrics) helps capture the quick-changing, contrasting mood of each scene, whilst highlighting the folk-style of Newfoundland. 

With a cast of 12, who multirole seamlessly throughout and are nearly constantly on stage, it’s hard to pick out any one performer: they are all absolutely stunning, with tight, close harmonies, brilliant comic timing and energetic movements, drilled to perfection by director Christopher Ashley. I did have a particular fondness for the character Janice, played by Natasha J. Barnes, who created a loveable innocence to her role as the rookie reporter on Gander. Another personal favourite was Bonnie, played by Rosie Glossop, whose determination to find and take care of the animals on the plane was inspiring and heartwarming. The accents of the ensemble were also excellent and consistent, especially when performing the unique twist on the Canadian accent that can only be found in Newfoundland. The wide range of accents and characters performed only helped to emphasise the complete diversity of all 7000 people who were on those planes. 

Sara Poyzer (Beverley)

If you don’t know the show already, I highly recommend you listen to the soundtrack. It won’t lessen your enjoyment of the show at all and even the songs on their own will leave you laughing and crying. A particular favourite of mine is the opening (and closing) ‘Welcome to the Rock’ which instantly sets the folk-style genre whilst forcing you to remember what exactly you were doing when you first heard about 9/11. Another favourite is ‘Me & the Sky’, wonderfully performed in this production by Sara Poyzer playing the role of Beverley, America’s first female captain. This solo song of female empowerment also highlights in a crashing instant at the end of the song the wider effect the atrocities of 9/11 had on people, including the professions of pilots. 

This production is cathartic in its truest sense of the word. I left the theatre feeling drained, but also uplifted. In a world of mobile phones and social disconnection, the play emphasises the importance of community spirit, kindness, trust, acceptance and friendship. This may be a story around one of the worst atrocities in recent history, but this is a story about the goodness of humanity that came forth from it.

The Ancient Greeks, those masters of civilisation, made it compulsory for all citizens to attend the theatre. If I could have my way I would do the same with this show. I’d even go so far as to say that the government should give free tickets to all students. This is entertainment but this is also education: this is learning what it means to be part of a community, to do things for others, to love, to feel anger, to learn to forgive. Please, please see this show. And take everyone you can with you.

https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/come-from-away-2024/#book

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