Review – Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre London, 29th December 2021

Come From AwayWe spent most of the Christmas period playing that touch-and-go game of will the shows go ahead or will Covid get the better of us all. Amazingly, all three shows that we had booked for between Christmas and New Year managed to stay sufficiently Corona-free and they were all thoroughly pleasing theatre trips, so praise be to the Vaccine and Booster!

Come From Away CompanyFirst of those three was a show that I had high hopes of seeing early in 2020 but it wasn’t to be because of you know what. The first major work written and composed by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away first opened in various locations in the US in 2015, before arriving in Toronto in 2016, Broadway in 2017 and the West End in 2019. It’s the longest running Canadian musical on Broadway, and has won many awards, including the Olivier for Best Musical in 2019. Does it live up to its hype? Oh boy, yes it sure does.

Come From Away CompanyEveryone knows the tragic story of the hijacked planes that were flown into the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. But I’d never thought about – and I bet you hadn’t either – the 38 flights that were headed for New York at the same time and which had to be diverted to the small town of Gander, in Newfoundland. Approximately 7,000 passengers and crew, expecting to land in the Big Apple, suddenly found themselves in the back of beyond, nearly doubling the population of that tiny town. What a logistical nightmare that must have been – how to feed, house, and clothe these people; how to take care of their medical needs, how to get them in contact with friends and family (no one had mobiles in those days), and how eventually to get them back to where they needed to be, once the danger had passed. And who would give that help? The kind, generous and welcoming inhabitants of Gander, that’s who.

Come From Away CompanyIf ever we lived at a time where we need a good news story it’s now, and Come From Away overflows with kindness and compassion. It boasts a brilliant eight-strong band who deliver the catchy, Irish-folky score with huge enthusiasm and infectious rhythm. Beowulf Borritt’s simple but terrifically evocative set, combined with Howell Binkley’s subtle lighting design, provides a sparse, rustic backdrop to all the scenes, from a super-friendly Tim Horton’s to a chaotic airport.

Come From Away CompanyThe cast of twelve play dozens of characters, the majority based on real-life people and their genuine experiences at the time. There’s never been a time when theatre has needed and valued its amazing swings and covers as much as now, and for our performance we had three understudies. But the whole cast worked together superbly as a true ensemble, seamlessly moving in and out of different characters with as little as a simple walk around the stage, or change of a hat. And although the show emphasises the good things, it’s not to say that there aren’t of course many crises, heartaches, petty antagonisms and reconciliations along the way; but everything reaches a positive conclusion. So many mini-dramas are played out in this show, like the arguments between James Doherty’s Mayor Claude and Mark Dugdale’s union leader Garth, who decides to suspend the bus drivers’ strike to help with the emergency; or the relationship deterioration between the two Kevins – Mark Dugdale again and superb standby Ricardo Castro, who is also excellent as the initially distrusted super-chef Ali.

Come From Away CompanyJenna Boyd is brilliant as teacher Beulah, but also hilarious as the terrified/drunk scouser passenger who breaks into Celine Dion at a moment’s notice. She has very touching scenes with Gemma Knight Jones’ Hannah as both characters share the concern about having a son as a firefighter. I loved Alice Fearn’s smart pilot Beverley, and Harry Morrison’s constantly enthusiastic cop Oz. The heart-warming romance that kindles between Kate Graham’s Diane and standby Stuart Hickey’s Nick is beautifully observed and gets more and more charming as it progresses. Another standby, Jennifer Tierney, is excellent as the kind-hearted Bonnie, in charge of the SPCA, and who treats the 19 animals who suddenly arrive in Gander with the same respect as everyone else treats the humans – especially her beloved Bonobos! Come From Away BandThere are also great performances by Emma Salvo as newbie reporter Janice and Sam Oladeinde as the partial to Irish Whiskey Bob. The music is uplifting and emotional, and the band get their own sensational curtain call at the end with a fantastic demonstration of their individual musical skills in a finale hoe-down.

Everything about this show is a delight. A tonic for the heart and a balm for the mind. No wonder it’s been so successful. Absolutely superb from start to finish.

Production photos by Craig Sugden

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – God of Carnage, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2012

God of CarnageYasmina Reza’s characters enjoy a good argument, don’t they? In Art (admittedly the only other Reza play I’ve seen) friendships get destroyed over the purchase of a painting. In God of Carnage two couples meet to discuss a fight their sons had, that resulted in one of them losing a couple of teeth. Unlike in the first play, these people have never met before so don’t have established friendships at risk; however, by the end of the play any pretence at middle-class politeness and structured problem solving has gone right out of the window.

Alan and Annette are at a disadvantage though; not only is it their son, Ferdinand, who has committed the alleged attack, they are at the “away ground” that is Bruno’s parents’ (Veronica and Michael) living room. Veronica is in charge of negotiations – Michael is obviously just there for back-up – and Alan (a pharmaceutical company lawyer) is playing a subtle defensive bat looking to disallow inappropriate words and assumptions. Annette is the soul of politeness and impeccable behaviour until she has an unfortunate attack of nausea – with explosive results. It’s the kind of nightmare event that, unless you were with good friends, would be absolutely impossible to overcome and your relationship – whatever it was – could never be the same again. While Veronica and Michael are clearing up the mess, Alan overhears them laughing at their guests’ awfulness – and that’s the cue for the arguments really to begin.

Michael and VeronicaIf you’ve read some of my other theatre reviews, gentle reader, you will know that I tend to question productions that don’t have an interval. I love an interval. It’s a chance to reflect over what you’ve seen in the first half and consider what might happen in the second half; on a practical level it’s the opportunity to stretch your legs, nip to the loo, have a drink or an ice-cream and indeed wake yourself up if the first half has been dull. It’s also an opportunity for the theatre to make some money from bar sales – don’t knock it, they need to raise revenue for the good of us all. So if there’s no interval – as in this case – I ask myself why. If it’s a good reason artistically – as in the recent Bully Boy – then so be it. If there’s no particular reason apart from wanting to go home fifteen minutes earlier – as in the Menier’s revival of Educating Rita – then it’s very annoying. There’s no doubt in my mind that God of Carnage could not sustain an interval – but that’s because at 90 minutes duration it is, in my mind, about 30 minutes too long and would be much better off as a classic one act play, ideally to be shown together with another one act play either side of an interval.

Annette and AlanI felt that once the initial scenario is played out – polite discussions of children’s delinquency which gets overtaken by the parents’ falling out over it – there really wasn’t very much further that the play could go. Yes, the characters are revealed as more selfish, bigoted and generally unpleasant than you might have thought them at the beginning, but I didn’t feel they were sufficiently developed so as to give you a greater insight into the human condition. There is a sense of a sex war going on, as the men find a certain understanding between them over a glass of excellent rum, whilst the women, descending into drunkenness and abandon, commit acts of violence and destruction on the men. As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, these sequences are funny in themselves but would not have been so had the acts been committed by the men on the women. As a study of a polite group of people turning against themselves because of underlying bigotry, this is no Clybourne Park; and as a study of hosts turning on their guests to mask their own unhappy relationship this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the play; it was fine; I just wasn’t challenged by it in the way I’d hoped.

Technically it’s a very good production. We both admired the set’s back wall of individual tulips, like a vertical garden, cleverly lit so that it looks as though they are either leaning inwards either in support of each other or sparring with each other. The change to red lighting gave an eerie sense of blood, which was quite alarming. Otherwise it’s a simple, narrow set, with a floor sloping down towards the audience, giving you a slightly uncomfortable sense of imbalance, visually underlining the claustrophobia and the inevitability of things (handbag contents, vomit, for example) toppling down towards you. There’s also no doubt that the play’s coup-de-theatre, the nausea attack, was achieved brilliantly believably and with delightful messiness.

Sian ReevesThe four characters are all very well acted by the highly talented cast. Sian Reeves as Veronica is perfect as the super-polite hostess with the hidden agenda of coercing her guests into accepting full responsibility for the “disfigurement” to her child. She does a very nice line in smugness about her writing achievements and goes scarily maniacal as she is let down by her husband later on. It’s a very funny performance.

James DohertyAs her more down to earth husband Michael, James Doherty has an excellent set piece early on when he talks about hamstergate, and his inability to understand why no one agrees with him on this is very funny. He absolutely gets that sense of rivalry with his more educated foe Alan, and when he becomes simply angry at all the shenanigans his portrayal of that anger is very clear, straightforward and believable.

Simon WilsonSimon Wilson’s Alan, enthralled to his Blackberry, is a very credible ruthless lawyer who requires that the world bow down to his requirements. He has a superb inscrutable look and you can just imagine that he has workplace bullying down to a fine art. When Annette takes his communication lifeline away he is completely lost and powerless – all that’s left is his husk. You’d feel sorry for him if the arrogant wretch didn’t deserve it so much.

Melanie GutteridgeAnd Melanie Gutteridge as Annette lives and breathes every moment of the play – her social dilemmas of when and what to say whilst they’re all being polite; suffering the embarrassment of vomiting everywhere; beginning to stand up to her hosts as they accuse her son unfairly; taking revenge on her husband; and finally trying to find a way forward out of the mess. She’s superb. On the night we went, she was still brushing away real tears during curtain call.

All in all some very good elements make up an entertaining evening, but for me the play was a bit disappointing; too long for a one-acter and lacking a decent denouement, but with four very committed performances.