Come from Away review: Set in a bleak time, a simple tale to inspire

Much to admire in the musical about travellers stranded in Newfoundland on 9/11

Come from Away: The Broadway musical makes its European debut at the Abbey

Come from Away: The Broadway musical makes its European debut at the Abbey

 

COME FROM AWAY

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

★★★☆☆

Abruptly diverted during the panic of 9/11, the passengers who found themselves grounded in Newfoundland went by two different names: “Come From Aways”, a Newfinese expression for strangers, or “Plane People”, as though almost 7,000 international citizens had formed a de facto tribe in Gander (a town with a population not much bigger).

Their local counterparts, a cheery, hardy, bluff lot you might call The Plain People of Newfoundland, introduce themselves with a stomping song of islander resilience against unremitting inclemency, Welcome to the Rock: “Where everyone is nice but it’s never nice above!” Indeed, everyone is nice in this Canadian musical, itself an intensively nice undertaking that has already charmed Canada and Broadway.

This, the West End production, might resemble an out-of-town tryout, a strategy beloved of commercial musicals, because it is certainly not an Abbey production. Although the Dublin theatre is, like the Newfoundlanders, a very eager host. It might have landed as snugly in a commercial venue like the Olympia with less controversy. Alighting in Dublin for its European premiere may count as a coup born from cultural affinity, though. The music of Newfoundland, like its fascinatingly familiar accents, bears strong Celtic influences.

That may explain echoes of Once: The Musical within this continuous rock céilí – all bódhran beats, flutes and fiddles – or the feeling of another lock-in (albeit one that begins on a quarantined plane). “There’s nothing to do, nothing to see/ Thank god we stopped at the duty-free,” sing the pent-up ensemble, conjuring up moored planes or lurching school buses with unfussy mime.

The bright ensemble deliver a show with a heart of gold, or perhaps, golden syrup
The bright ensemble deliver a show with a heart of gold, or perhaps, golden syrup

To tell this story of grand-scale immobility, Irene Carl Sankoff and David Hein’s compositions, director Christopher Ashley’s action and Tara Overfield-Wilkinson’s brisk choreography evoke ceaseless motion: over 100 minutes, the show is never boring. Inspired by real figures, the 12-person cast don multiple roles, switched and shuffled between straight-talking mayors, adorably schlubby cops, timid first-day journalists and endlessly resourceful local women.

They meet various culture-shocked urbanites: a nervous gay couple; a meet-cute, middle-aged straight couple; and an African American from the Bronx so alarmed by edgeless Canadian hospitality (“I’m not falling for it ... I hide my wallet.”). you wonder what he would make of this musical.

Against a bleak moment in history, it is a simple tale told to inspire: an example of human support and camaraderie, amplified within the traditional arc of a musical. There is much to admire, such as the bright ensemble diverse in body types, ages and (to a lesser extent) ethnicities, or Howell Binkley’s endlessly inventive lights over Beowulf Borritt’s epically spare set.

There are pleasing musical ideas too, where initially discrete voices and narrations gradually merge into rushing harmonies and propulsive choruses. If only the book was less banal, driving home points of universalism: even in this accidental panoply, aren’t people all the same?

Thus characters are mirrored and moments paralleled as local folks surprise city folks with their progressive ways, city folks impress the locals by loosening up, and everybody bonds with somebody. The holiday fantasy (and genre cliché) of a simpler, more authentic way of life becomes as cute as a running gag about the erotic daydreams of one Newfoundland woman. Who can’t identify?

If there is recognition of something more troubling in this moment, it lies in bittersweet grace notes: a mother struggling to reach her son, a New York firefighter; a female air pilot whose Dolly Partonesque belter pivots into something tragically stunned; or the first flares of Islamophobia that casts a helpful Egyptian restaurateur as a terror suspect. Such gravity is outshone by the show’s heart of gold, or, depending on your threshold for the saccharine, golden syrup.

Runs until Saturday, January 19th, 2019

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