Come to community

Come From Away

Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

From July 3

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Immediately upon entry into Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre for “Come From Away”, there is an aesthetic akin to that of “Once”, low-key staging and sensibility with some chairs and a back-of-the-stage band to provide a Celtic folk flavour to things. The Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is, however, quite unlike any other.

The documusical is set in the week following the September 11 attacks and, in particular, the compassion and care of a community’s altruistic response to tragedy. Specifically, the extraordinary story centres around two groups of people; residents of the remote government and airport town of Ganda in the centre of an island in on the north east tip of Canada known as Newfoundland and the crew and passengers of 38 planes forced to land there after the terrorist attacks forced the closure of American airspace.

If you are a traveller, the show soon gets you thinking about how you might cope with spending more than a day grounded on a plane, once duty free purchases have all been consumed and every movie watched (‘28 Hours / Wherever We Are’) and then only being allowed access to carry-on luggage. As the discomfort of confusion and conflicting information transforms into the relief of being deplaned, frustration arises as the town’s 9000 residents try to cater for 7000 plane people from more than a hundred countries, reacting to the situation in a range of ways.

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The nature of the story would assumedly make the incorporation of movement a challenge, however, inventive staging makes it a quite physical realisation, as props are switched in and out of jackets and chairs become setup for the show’s many settings. The 12 member cast too, are also incredibly versatile in playing many roles of people on the planes and flying the planes, as well as the residents of the town, including all of the associated distinctive characteristics and accents.

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Sharriese Hamilton gives a moving performance as Hannah, mother of a Manhattan firefighter, delivering a strong, soulfully emotional ‘I Am Here’, in reflection of the isolation and helplessness she feels not knowing of his fate. Emma Powell is irresistibly energetic as the quick-witted and warm-hearted local Beulah who bonds with Hannah over the fact that both of their sons are firefighters. And Kobly Kindle brings much humour to the role of jaded New Yorker Bob, initially suspicious of everyone and everything. Indeed, while the show’s subject matter lends its self to pathos, there is much humour too and even some romance as it takes audiences to not quite a happy ending, but a contented one at least.

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While the score contains only 15 songs, it seems like the music never stops between the opening ‘Welcome to the Rock’ describing the stony island and the town of Gander, to the tearfully reflective ‘Finale’ in which characters reunite to celebrate the lifelong friendships and strong connections they formed in spite of the terrorist attacks. ‘Me and the Sky’ serves as another highlight, in which trail blazing pilot Beverley Bass (Zoe Gertz), the first female captain for American Airlines takes us through her history and comments on how her once optimistic view of the world has suddenly changed (one of only two solos in this truly ensemble show). And it comes on the back of the great folksy fiddle number ‘Screech In’ which sees passengers invited to be initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders at the local bar.

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At its core, “Come From Away” is all about community. Even the audience is made part of the world of the play through occasional character breaks of the fourth wall, which only makes the smooth one act show all the more engaging. Experience of the musical is like a step back in time, full of fascinating facts and figures alongside its celebration of the humanity of heroic hospitality. The fact that it is the story of ordinary people (while some characters are amalgamated all are based on real testimony), being nice to each other makes it joyously beautiful in a way that has to be experienced to be believed.

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