Eoghan Funge looks at the influences of the recently closed West End Musical - Come From Away.
Come From Away is a musical about the events following the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. It follows the experiences of the ‘plane people’. These are the passengers whose flights were re-routed to the towns of Newfoundland, Canada. Here, the passengers experienced a massive outpouring of kindness and welcoming. It has since toured internationally - first opening on Broadway, then making its European debut here, in Dublin’s own Abbey Theatre, before moving to the West End, where since 2019 it has called the Phoenix Theatre home. On January 7th, Come From Away closed its west-end doors, shortly after announcing a new UK and Ireland tour coming in 2024.
In December 2018, Come From Away, along with its creatives, and guests upon whom the show is based came to Dublin, to visit and perform in the national theatre - The Abbey. It was here that Come From Away began its West End journey - using Irish Audiences as a small sample of the reactions and relatability that was to come. It's extremely unusual for a production to bring its full West End crew and cast to Dublin, rather than sending it on a national tour after a run on the West End. But it was here, in Dublin, that Come From Away felt like home. Upon seeing the show, audiences and critics alike were quick to agree that it was right that Come From Away do a run here before going to the West End. This is due largely to the massive influence Ireland and its culture has had on the people of Gander and broader Newfoundland. In an interview in 2018 with the Independent’s John Meagher, writing team Sankoff and Hein said “Some of the fishing villages were so remote that the accents of the first people to emigrate continued down through the generations. The bodhrán is played in Newfoundland a lot, and it's part of this show, too." The script does well at highlighting these links between Irishness and the Canadian towns’ attitudes, beliefs and cultures. The language is recognisably shorthand much of the time - similar to that of communities here in Ireland, where everyone knows everyone.
It's extremely unusual for a production to bring its full West End crew and cast to Dublin, rather than sending it on a national tour after a run on the West End. But it was here, in Dublin, that Come From Away felt like home
One particular scene however, reflects Irish culture the most. This scene takes place 50% through the performance in the town's local pub, where the people of Gander invite ‘the plane people’ to nominate themselves to be ‘newfoundlanders’. They do this through a unique ceremony in which the people sing together. At the end of the ceremony they all celebrate performing a céilí-like celebration, singing folk songs along with local musicians, dancing in unison together, drinking, and singing as a community. It is here where as an Irish person watching, I begun to understand the stories of many tourists who come here and say they feel right at home - I see from an outside perspective the experiences of those who may feel ‘othered’, being brought into a culture through the strange experience of just being around locals as they go about what to them, feels like a normal evening’s activity, but to others, feels cultural and in many ways educational.
David Hein and Irene Sankoff furthered the show's links to Ireland, in the same aforementioned interview as they credited Once, particularly the musical adaptation, of which they said “We loved it, and it sort of gave us permission to put this type of music on stage. Every song was written on guitar - neither of us play piano.” Once of course is the Oscar award-winning film which then went on to be a hugely successful stage musical, particularly in the United States. It's not surprising that a show like Once would be the inspiration behind many of the scenes and music in Come From Away; this can be heard throughout, with the guitar acting as the guiding instrument among an incredible band of the mundane and the unique.
I was fortunate enough to attend the show's closing night and the aforementioned themes were only heightened by the audience and their eagerness to be involved. It seemed that the moments where the audience really felt involved, and often engaged with the actors, were those that are inspired by and similar to Ireland and Irish theatre - the jokes, abbreviations, lingo and music all brought the crowd at multiple moments to their feet. It felt almost as though the audience were part of an exchange. As a fair trade for what the performers were giving them, they were willing to give a standing ovation at multiple numbers throughout the show - most notably, the band's tune-up ahead of the house lights going down. At the end of the opening number, in which motifs from traditional Irish Music can be heard, the audience rocketed to their feet to shower the cast in what was approximately 5 minutes of applause before eventually resuming their seats and reciting dialogue along with the crew. To top the themes of kindness already in the show, audience members were met with tote bags, filled with merchandise from the production - and special postcards that were designed by fans across the globe.
The show is now set to return to Ireland soon, as to whether or not it will be back in the Abbey theatre or will opt to go to a space with west-end scale audiences is to be announced. Readers interested in updates on this production’s tour, or in learning more, can visit www.comefromaway.com.