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Review – Come From Away (UK Tour) – Empire Theatre, Liverpool

WHEN you get a phone call from a friend visiting Toronto to say they have just been to one of the best pieces of theatre they have ever seen, you take note. Having had just such a phone call myself some years ago, I was quick to buy a ticket when the musical Come From Away opened in the West End in 2019.

To say that a UK tour has been hotly anticipated would be something of an understatement, and this fortnight Liverpool audiences are in for a treat, as the tour arrives at the Empire Theatre following its opening in Leicester.

A brief description of the work as a musical based on 9/11 doesn’t exactly sell it as a great night out, but believe me – this is one of the most powerful, emotional and uplifting pieces of theatre you are ever likely to see.

As the terrifying events of September 11th 2001unfolded before the eyes of the world, aircraft across North America were diverted as far as possible from heavily populated areas, with 38 of them making an unscheduled landing at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland. The arrival of almost 7,000 passengers in the town almost doubled its population in a matter of hours. Not fully aware of the reason for their diversion, these travellers were scared and bewildered, but the people of Gander went above and beyond all possible expectations to hold out their arms in welcome.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein visited Gander to witness an anniversary reunion in 2011, and the real life stories they collected from the people who were there became a musical phenomenon. The people of Gander called their unexpected visitors the ‘Come From Aways’ hence the show’s seemingly strange title.

Everything about the show has a disarming simplicity. It is a piece of very straightforward, linear storytelling, played out on an almost bare stage. Beowulf Boritt’s set design is a timber wall set amidst a forest of trees, and the cast manoeuvre chairs and tables about the space to create practically everything else. For this touring production even the stage revolve used in the West End has  been dispensed with, so that the 12 strong cast and 8 piece onstage band become the entire focus of our attention.

The score is inspired by traditional Newfoundland folk music which, along with the accent of the Gander townspeople, has a distinctly Celtic feel to it. It begins with a throbbing drum beat that heralds the opening ‘Welcome to the Rock’ and the dramatic and musical arc of the unbroken 100 minute span is central to the success of the show. The gradual build-up of emotional tension is perfectly measured under Christopher Ashley’s keenly focused direction, so that when we reach its peak in the company number ‘Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere’ the feeling of exhilaration in the auditorium is extraordinary. Any thoughts that such an intimate show might be swamped by the scale of the Empire are swiftly dispensed with as soon as the music begins, and the sound balance is masterfully judged to make every word crystal clear.

Through a series of character back stories – some touching and some tragic – we come to know the people like family. This is one of those rare pieces of theatre where we genuinely care about the fate of everyone on stage. The eventual departure of the Come From Aways could herald an anticlimactic ending but, in a stroke of narrative genius, the show closes with a depiction of the 10th anniversary reunion that sparked it off, and a party that we all want to be a part of.

On that September 11th the world witnessed unthinkable acts of terror, but in Gander 7,000 frightened people experienced something very different. Come From Away tells a beautiful and remarkable story of human kindness, all the more noteworthy for being entirely true. It is a piece of theatre that will lift your heart, restore your faith in humanity, and stay with you forever.

If there is one show you really don’t want to miss in Liverpool this year, this is it.

Come From Away is at the Liverpool Empire until 23rd March, including matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and tickets are available here.

Star rating: 5 stars
Review by Nigel Smith

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