Come From Away (2nd time around)

By Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Rodney Rigby and Junkyard Dog Productions. Director Christopher Ashley. Theatre Royal, Sydney. 10 Nov 2022 to at least end Jan, 2023.

November 10, 2022*


Photo : Jeff Busby

Last night the Cenotaph and Martin Place were in readiness for Armistice Day. White plastic chairs and multiple arrangements of huge red poppies waited behind wire fencing for the sombre service that marks the end of the “war to end all wars” … and remembers the loss and destruction of the many wars that followed. As we walked past this sombre sea of poppies to watch the re-opening of a play that commemorates one of the ‘fall outs’ of a more wicked kind of warfare, we wondered at the coincidence of a play about ‘9/11’ opening so close to ‘11/11’…

I wrote about Come From Away when it first opened in Sydney, but this ‘coincidence’ led me to concentrate on what this very different musical achieves as a record of one of the “good things” that came out the devastating tragedy that history remembers simply as ‘9/11’.

Photo : Jeff Busby

Today’s history is recorded in graphic detail. Pictures fly across the world faster than the immediate effects ‘on the ground’ are realised. Those pictures will remain, cementing the shock, wreckage, loss of life … and the reprisals that might follow.

The history Come From Away records is different. It shows the other side of human nature. The side that the people of Newfoundland showed as they greeted 6,597 passengers from 38 aircraft that were diverted to the international airport at Gander as the airspace above America was closed. “The Rock” that is Newfoundland became what writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein describe as their “safe harbour in a world thrown into chaos”.

That chaos is an integral part of Come From Away.

It’s there in the pace and composition of the music – music that, in its tempo and timbre pays homage to the diverse backgrounds of the people of “The Rock” and the instruments that their settler ancestors brought with them – the button accordion, the Irish flute, uillean pipes, bodhrán drum, the fiddle. All mix with contemporary instruments to provide the almost mystical music of Newfoundland, mystique incorporated into the fourteen songs that carry so much of the story. Some are foot tappingly memorable, some are poignantly moving.

Photo : Jeff Busby

Chaos is there too in the pace and complexity of the choreography – not just in the dancing, but in the speed with which the 12 actors change character, change accent, change costume, and the dexterity with which they change the positions of the twelve chairs that are the basis of the set. Every movement is precise, every placement is exact. And no one misses a beat.

There is a different sort of chaos that is expressed in the changes of mood. There’s the chaos of the townspeople suddenly realising that they are part of a devastating event that has thrown the world into turmoil. That the planes that have landed will bring people from 92 different countries. That they will have to be housed and fed and comforted.

There’s the confusion of the travellers who are frightened, disoriented, worried about their loved ones. Many can’t speak English. They have no luggage. Some haven’t eaten for hours. Others have had to leave their medication on the grounded planes.

Photo : Jeff Busby

All these emotions are manifested in the reactions and words of the characters – words taken from the 1600 stories that Sankoff and Hein collected in the month they spent in Gander Newfoundland on the 10th anniversary of the attack. Words expressed by the cast as they move between characters, one moment sitting, frustrated, uncomfortable and afraid in an aeroplane, next minute trying to find accommodation and food for 7000 people. This chaos is different for each character, and the 12 actors find each strange, busy, frightened, compassionate moment.

Come From Away is warm and poignant. It is fast and funny. It is both celebratory and commemorative. It shows humankind at its very best dealing with the result of humankind acting at its very worst. If you missed it last time … don’t make the same mistake again!

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening night.