Review: Come From Away

The theatre we need right now

By Kim Edwards

On the Canadian island of Newfoundland, if you’re not local, you’ve come from away. And in the remote little town of Gander, when 6579 strangers from all over the world suddenly arrived frightened, bewildered and angry on their doorsteps, the townspeople and their neighbours immediately took them all into their halls, schools and homes. They provided food, shelter, bedding, clothes, medication, toiletries and personal items, and supplied an even more generous wealth of kindness, support and friendship to their stranded guests – the international passengers of 38 planes diverted from New York on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Come From Away is an utterly astounding, compelling, hilarious and profoundly moving theatre experience. In an era of jukebox musicals and movie-to-stage adaptations, this stunning creation written and composed by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is the epitome of what original music theatre as an art form can achieve. In ninety non-stop minutes, dozens of characters share their stories with us and the storytelling is both adroit and engrossing. Lyrics, dialogue, music and movement blend seamlessly and skilfully in weaving the varied tales and emotions together.

Extraordinary creative and technical achievements including Beowulf Boritt’s iconic timber set, Howell Binkley’s spectacular lighting design and Toni-Leslie James’ subtle and intelligent costume design work in visual harmony to establish landscape, character and atmosphere for the myriad of scenes, roles and locations. It is a triumph that you never lose track of who is playing whom where and when, which is grounded in Christopher Ashley’s direction and Kelly Devine’s musical staging.

Moreover, our yearning to hear and see more, and our burgeoning affection for the characters we discover rests powerfully with the individuals on stage. The cast of twelve (Kellie Rode, Emma Powell, Richard Piper, Sarah Morrison, Simon Maiden, Kolby Kindle, Douglas Hansell, Sharriese Hamilton, Zoe Gertz, Nathan Carter, Nicholas Brown and Angela Kennedy on the night reviewed) and the eight-piece band (Ben Smart, Xani Kolac, James Kempster, Matthew Horsley, Tim Hartwig, Caleb Garfinkel, Dave Beck and musical director Luke Hunter) are exemplary in their multifaceted performances. Actors meld easily from one memorable character to the next, musicians fluidly switch style, emotion or instrument, and we laugh at and cry for people we’ve only just met and songs we’ve just heard for the first time.

Come From Away at its heart is about people coming together in dark times to create something wonderfully good, and its true story and ensemble of storytellers reinforcing this poignant theme not only plays out in recognizing the amazing creatives who have built the production, but resounds in the audience experience as well. We are made at home and part of the story from the beginning. The constant addresses to the audience, uninterrupted performance time, well-crafted character arcs, the sweep and swell of songs and underscore, the fact every cast member is integral, the band are onstage in scene and get personal curtain calls, and our only moment to applaud mid-show is in unison with the performers makes for an experience where everyone matters. Everyone is part of the moment, we have all ‘come from away’, and it is little wonder the audience rose as one for a prolonged standing ovation when our journey together was over.

This was a unique experience. This is a special show. It’s wise and witty, inspirational and exhilarating. So if you’re feeling heartsore with life and the modern world lately, Come From Away has so much comfort, kindness, courage and comedy to share. This is a musical that welcomes you with open arms and sends you away more whole – and more hopeful.

You’ll be so glad you came.

Come From Away is currently playing at The Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 1300 111 011.

Photograph: Jeff Busby