Sunday, July 21

Come From Away – Leeds Grand Theatre

Wandering through Broadway’s theatreland my youngest daughter and I were looking for a show to see so she suggested that Come From Away had fantastic word of mouth on TikTok. We popped into the box office scoring great stalls seats for 80 bucks, and she was spot on with her pick as this warm-hearted show about the best and worst of humanity went straight into my top five musicals.

A musical about the aftermath of 9/11 seems an unlikely hit, but it’s based on a true story set thousands of miles away from the twin towers in a small Canadian town called Gander that was home to an airfield once used to refuel jets before they set off across the Atlantic. Super jets made the landing strip almost obsolete, but as airspaces were shut down after the terror attack 38 airplanes carrying 7000 disorientated passengers – and 19 animals – to destinations across the globe began landing, with only sketchy details of what had forced them to seek safety in Newfoundland.

I worried that having seen this show with an all American cast not that far away from the 9/11 memorial this version might not be as good. I was wrong, and it’s testament to a quality cast who understand why this show is so beloved by musical theatre devotes, and the power of the words and folk infused music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein that it still offers a timely message that doing something for others without a thought is a universal part of our humanity.

Come From Away is about real people and composites of others to show how a town of only 10000 rallied round to shelter and console scared people from all corners of the planet as many desperately tried to find out what has happened to their loved ones.  The people of Gander showed that when barbarians murder thousands then simple acts of kindness for no reward can shine a light in even the darkest times.

It’s also a cracking old school musical full of great songs that nod to local musical traditions, and some really clever staging on a stark set where the endless rearrangement of the chairs dotted round the stage can transport you from a plane full of terrified people to a community centre and into a bar.  Christopher Ashley’s sympathetic direction makes the most of this device utilising Howell Binkley’s intelligent lighting, and Kelly Devine’s simple but highly effective choreography adds to a sense of people pulling together.  

As the local mayor, cop, teacher and animal welfare officer try to work out what to do their rendition of 38 Places illustrates the scale of the challenge, and when the passengers finally disembark 28 Hours/Wherever We Are is full of understandable angst and paranoia. Anyone who has walked round the 9/11 memorial will be especially moved by Darkness and Trees, and there’s a lovely sequence during Clothes Party as the locals and their unexpected guests begin to bond trying on donated clothes. But for Hannah her New York firefighter son is missing and Bree Smith’s version of I Am Here is heart-rending.

Sankoff and Hein’s book subtly draw out the passengers backstories, including Beverley Bass who was the first American woman to captain a jet before having to land her plane in Gander, and Mamma Mia stalwart Sara Poyzer beautifully essays through Me and the Sky how her worldview changes after the attacks. It would be a mistake to think this show is just a misery fest as there’s plenty of laughs along the way as despite everything humour is another human trait that binds us together. Casualty star Amanda Henderson is great fun as schoolteacher Beulah as is Rosie Glossop as Bonnie tending to the stranded animals including a pregnant Monkey.

In a show full of emotion and big numbers, Screech In encapsulates what makes this show so unique as the passengers become honorary Newfoundlanders with the ensemble exuberantly dancing round the set with the excellent band as the lyrics push the character’s narratives along.  

The secret sauce in this show is it’s not all sweetness and light as relationships collapse, tensions rise among the disorientated guests and there is an incident that underlines that even in extremis an irrational fear of the other can still be there. The show closes as the ‘come from aways’ return a decade later to thank the Gander folk for their support, and the shared love that screams off the stage during Finale is just the best way to finish any show.

Some cynics sneer at musical theatre as being light and fluffy, but Come From Away offers an emotional range up there with the deepest drama, and there is not a weak link in the ensemble who play all sorts of roles with great empathy. There is always a sense that they’re aware they are honouring the people of Gander, those that came from away and the innocents who lost their lives on that terrible day.

In a world that seems to be going to hell in a handcart, Come From Away is a much needed reminder that most people are decent and in even the most desperate times will come together to do the right thing. You can just enjoy it as a classic example of the enduring power of musicals to speak to the power of the human spirit, or you can look a bit deeper and focus on the one word that kept popping into my head.


Come From Away is at Leeds Grand until Saturday 11th May. To book  or 0113 2430808.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 30th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.