Come From Away West End – Phoenix Theatre, London

pippa sat on chair, holding up blue come from away programme and smiling

Expectations: 4/5

Reality: 4.5/5

Chronic Illness-Friendly: 3/5

[#GIFTED] Thank you so much to the team at Official London Theatre for arranging this trip in return for a piece all about our experiences from a chronic illness-perspective, which you can find here!

Seeing Come From Away was without a doubt one of my theatre highlights of the year. Utterly incomparable to anything else I’ve seen, the story takes place following the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks, as the North American airspace is forced to close. The passengers aboard airplanes at the time of the incident find themselves emergency landing and then stranded in Gander: a small island off the East Coast of Canada, with no way of moving on or continuing their journeys until it’s once again deemed safe to fly.

The Gander community show no hesitancy in welcoming the passengers and going above and beyond to support them in their time of need; namely, as they first learn of what’s happened in the USA, and desperately try to reach their loved ones. People from all backgrounds and all walks of life are forced to survive together in the most trying of circumstances, but above all, the story is one of hope and empathy: individuals banding together to lift one another up and be what they each need in a truly desperate time.

Something that really struck me as unusual and impactful about this particular musical was that instead of the story building up to a dramatic event throughout the performance, in Come From Away, that dramatic event came first. The 9/11 attacks actually weren’t referenced in explicit detail at any time, therefore providing only a contextual and emotive starting point from which the rest of the story evolved. The plot instead follows select characters, as well as the Gander community as a whole, something which I believe very much worked in the production’s favour.

pippa and izzy stood in front of come from away pinboard visitor map
CFA Visitor Pinboard, where theatregoers can add their own names and pins…

Despite this alternative structure, that’s not to say the rest of the story lacked build-up or suspense. Instead, the audience is really forced to confront the long days the inhabitants lived through before being allowed to fly home; many days, insufferably, as they struggled to make contact with their family and friends. And you know this approach has been utilised effectively when you, as an audience member, feel genuine relief when the passengers’ flight home finally takes off and safely lands in the required destination, initiating the concluding remarks of the musical.

And with such an obviously devastating subject matter, it may surprise you that humour was used so impactfully throughout this production. At the beginning, it almost feels wrong to be laughing in the context of such an emotive story, but the dialogue really does entice you in, encouraging you to enjoy the lighter moments just as much as you acknowledge the sinister. The entire performance, as well as the fabulous musical score, felt like an emotional rollercoaster: you wouldn’t be able to help laughing one moment, and then bam, the emotional heartache would strike all over again.

It takes an incredibly talented cast and crew to achieve such a balance so effectively. In Come From Away, the relatively small cast each portray an array of characters, requiring an incredibly diverse set of skills (and accents!), and the fact that the story was still easy to follow is a testament to them. I particularly enjoyed Jenna Boyd as Beulah and Robert Hands as Nick, however the entire cast are worthy of acclaim in their own right.

I also appreciated the creative decisions that were made throughout the show. Very minimal set design and props allowed for no distractions from the story, and only subtle lighting and sound design were utilised too: just enough to drive home the most important elements of the performance, without overwhelming you. In my opinion, having more extreme technical elements could well have taken away from some of the poignant moments the piece crafts so carefully.

As the show concludes so eloquently; because we come from everywhere, we all Come From Away. Because of this, I firmly believe that this is the musical the whole world needs right now.

And in the meantime, you’ll find me attempting to kiss a fish to become a Newfoundlander myself. If you know, you know…

Chronic Illness-Friendly Review

Content-wise, Come From Away passes with flying colours; no digs at disability and chronic illness. Humour based around the passengers on board the flight to Orlando for their Make A Wish to be granted is handled sensitively and light-heartedly, and is well in-keeping with the themes of giving and empathy as portrayed by the musical.

As I mentioned before, sound and lighting effects were kept to a minimum, with only infrequent moments of background and lighting changes that caught me off guard. One factor to be aware of, however, is one character’s use of a disposable camera partway through the show, where flashing lights are used to enhance the action of the photos being taken. There are occasions where this flash is directed towards the audience itself, however I found these moments (after the first one) were fairly easy to anticipate and prepare yourself for.

In my opinion, the overriding factor to be aware of with Come From Away is that the performance is a straight 1 hour and 40-minute run, with no interval. And as you may remember from my Six the Musical review, a show with no interval has both strengths and drawbacks when it comes to chronic illness. If you’re like me, you may be wary of having to concentrate and focus for such a long period of time: when you have cognitive issues, no matter how engaging something is, your mind still may be inclined to wander or cause you some issues.

However, I was honestly amazed at how seamlessly the performance flowed; the story was incredibly easy to follow whilst still being gripping enough to hold your attention, and believe it or not, the curtains fell long before I was anticipating it. That said, if do you have concerns about the run time, it may be wise to choose an aisle seat so that you can discreetly slip in and out of the auditorium, should you need to.

And of course, the flip-side to having a straight run with no pauses is an earlier finishing time for the show: this may mean you find it easier to travel home (before the rest of the venues in the area let out their crowds) … long before a more traditionally structured performance would even be concluding. Having no interval could even mean less overall time out of the house, which we all know can be the key to managing your condition successfully, with less-debilitating struggles during the aftermath.

I believe this was my first visit to the Phoenix Theatre, an absolutely gorgeous venue. Do be aware that there are a lot of steps to contend with to really make the most of it, but there also seemed to be a decent number of bars and social areas with seats available; if you’re stealthy enough to grab them, that is…

The ATG Front Of House team were absolutely incredible. We were warmly greeted outside the theatre, given a hand with getting George the manual wheelchair up the one small step into the theatre, and then taken to the cloakroom where we safely handed him over to be looked after; George the wheelchair, that is, not Nick, the front of house staff member…

come from away programmes resting on table in barWe were then shown to the bar nearest to the stalls, forming one of the most thoughtful encounters I’ve ever experienced as a chronically ill theatregoer: two seats reserved for us to sit down and save energy, taking away the need for us to do our usual frantic *find Pippa a seat before her legs give in* routine. The fact that the team had anticipated one of our biggest barriers and gone out of their way to accommodate it really touched me: it’s moments like these that really drive home just how valuable being conscious of inclusivity can be, in helping theatre environments become more accessible for all.

After a little walk around, we were shown to our seats in the stalls, which boasted plenty of legroom, feeling relaxed and ready to enjoy the show. Following the performance, we hung back to let the crowds disperse (and to really make the most of our last few moments in the gorgeous auditorium), before being shown back to the foyer to collect our wheelchair and make our way safely home. The entire experience was so seamless; without a doubt one of our best theatre trips to-date. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to each and every person who made this trip possible!

[#GIFTED] It was an absolute privilege to be welcomed to the Rock, and I highly recommend you journey here and experience the phenomenon for yourself. Find further details for Come From Away and book your tickets the Official London Theatre website.

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