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Review: Come From Away at the Comedy Theatre

Review by Nicola Bennett

For Melbournians, the city’s theatres provide a heart, a beating pulse that excites and energises. After its necessary hiatus throughout 2020, the phenomenon that is Come From Away resuscitates this spirit and resumes its run at the Comedy Theatre in 2021.

Come From Away is the Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical that takes place in the hours and days after the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place in New York City, and deftly depicts the true stories of the 38 airplanes and their passengers that were diverted from American airspace and into the remote Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. From the moment over 6,000 travellers and 400 crew members receive their “Welcome to the Rock” (as the Newfoundlanders refer to their home’s rugged terrain), a tapestry of cultures, perspectives and connections is woven and creates lasting impacts on the lives of both locals and the “Come From Aways”. Handling such delicate subject matter with poise and taste is a difficult task, especially for a show of this scale and significance. It is a credit to the show’s writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein who do not shy away from the raw emotion of that devastating day, but who also capture the fighting spirit and power of human connection in the face of unprecedented adversity.

From the initial introduction to the small town characters of Gander, to the flurry of international travellers that set foot in “Wherever We Are”, the breadth and versatility of characters brings a vivacity to the evolving narrative. The recurring transitions between characters are seamless and instantaneous, switching between the earnest and thickly accented citizens of Gander to the displaced travellers processing their respective reactions to this mass devastation and upheaval. The multitude of individual stories pivots the audience between narratives without ever sacrificing its pace or quality of the performance, and the clear characterisation produced by the performers never leaves the audience disorientated or left behind.

The cast’s consistency in their performance quality and the power of their individual and collective vocals are simply first class. Particular mention is due for Zoe Gertz for her representation of Beverley Bass the formidable pilot, and who performed a phenomenal rendition of Beverley’s testimony to her life’s work and passion, “Me and the Sky”. Further commendations to Emma Powell and Sharriese Hamilton for their deft performances as two mothers who find each other while navigating every parent’s worst nightmare. Hamilton’s performance of “I Am Here” vents her frustration and heartbreak at her fire-fighter son’s unknown fate unfolding across the world with her stuck in remote Newfoundland. The show’s score uses strong Celtic elements to drive its folk-rock style, which further transports the audience away from more familiar Broadway styles and further sets this show apart in style and composition.

Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt is spectacular in its subtlety. Framed by floor to ceiling tree trunks, which are silhouetted against a slatted timber background, it creates a rustic warmth that invites the audience in, just as the residents of Gander did nearly 20 years ago. Subtle furniture changes to the otherwise stationary set effortlessly transfers the narrative between settings, incorporating the performers to complete these changes so the audience remains immersed in their stories. The revolving turntable utilised on the floor of the stage provides another subtle means of transition and perspective, but this mechanical intervention never overshadows the movement and energy created by the performers themselves.

The show’s common themes are timely in the current climate - paralysing disbelief, a sense of helplessness and a community’s ultimate persistence through adversity rings especially true today, as Melbournians exit our own collective fog and begin to resume life as we now know it. Despite the devastating premise of the musical’s narrative, what lingers throughout the performance and feeds the audience as they complete their final standing ovation is a sense of hope and belief in the power of the human spirit. During one of the darkest chapters of modern history, the stories and message of Come From Away reminds us that by facing the darkness together, this collective hope and belief in the human spirit will Lead Us Out Of The Night, and propels its viewers into more connected and optimistic times ahead. Come From Away is playing now at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.

Image Credit: Jeff Busby


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