The theatre returns: Come From Away's cast and crew reflect on the past year

The uplifting story of a Newfoundland town's coming together in the wake of 9/11 — now a hit musical — is back on stage in the West End. Here, the cast and crew reflect on the past year, and discuss the destinations they can't wait to return to.

Published 23 Jul 2021, 00:15 BST
The uplifting story of a Newfoundland town's coming together in the wake of 9/11 — now a ...

The uplifting story of a Newfoundland town's coming together in the wake of 9/11 — now a hit musical — is back on stage in the West End. Here, the cast and crew reflect on the past year, and discuss the destinations they can't wait to return to.

Photograph by Come From Away

On September 11, 2001, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the US shut down its airspace. More than 4,000 airborne planes were forced to land at their nearest airport, while inbound flights from Europe were diverted to Canada. This latter measure saw 38 planes, carrying 6,759 passengers and crew, land in Gander, a town with a population of just 10,000 people that also happens to be the location of an international airport. The world’s first nonstop transatlantic flight began from this spot, on the northeastern tip of Newfoundland, an island dubbed ‘The Rock’ by locals, that, together with an area of the mainland, makes up the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. US aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart began many of her flights from here too, and what eventually grew into Gander International Airport became an important refuelling stop for aircraft flying from Europe and North America. That all changed with the advent of the jet age in the 1960s, as stopovers here were no longer required. Consequently, it had become a much quieter airport.

Until, that is, the fateful day of 11 September 2001, when air passengers from all over the world were grounded in Canada in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The small community invited the ‘come from aways’ (Newfoundlander speak for people not born on The Rock) into their homes. Gander and its neighbouring towns Glenwood, Lewisporte, Appleton, Gambo and Norris Arm took people from around 100 countries in. They fed them, housed them, looked after them and made them feel welcome and safe. Claude Elliot, who was mayor of Gander at the time, has said “On the first day, we had 7,000 strangers. On the third day we had 7,000 friends. And on the fifth day, 7,000 family members.”

The London cast of Come From Away

Photograph by Come From Away

The remarkable story of how this small community welcomed thousands of strangers into their lives was subsequently turned into a hit musical, Come From Away, which opened in London in February 2019. The show is a celebration of hope and humanity, with a cast of characters based on the real inhabitants of Gander and the ‘plane people’ who landed there, brought to life by Olivier Award-winning writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

In March 2020, all of London’s West End theatres were ordered to close due to Covid-19. As restrictions have begun to ease in England, theatre is beginning to come back to life — and Come From Away is set to open again on 22 July 2021. Producer John Brant, associate director and choreographer Tara Overfield-Wilkinson and actor Mark Dugdale, who plays Kevin T in the show, spoke to us about bringing the show back to the West End, the destinations they’ve missed and how the story of Gander continues to inspire during the darkest times.

Why do you think Come From Away resonates with audiences?

Tara: "When you’d explain to somebody what the show is, their faces would screw up. “A show about 9/11?” But it’s not a show about 9/11. It's about what happens after. And it's about kindness and humility and what people do in the wake of disaster, and how we all pull together. Once you sit down, it takes you on a journey. And for the audience, it doesn't really allow you to let go. There isn’t the release of an interval, or lots of applause breaks — so you get caught up in it. And by time you get to the finale, and those passengers are on their plane going home, you're with them, and your emotions have been all over the place. You've laughed, you've cried, you've felt the anxiety. People start to resonate, because the stories in it are real, they're personal, and they could happen to anyone."

Mark: "I come from Belfast, so I come from a very divided community; I grew up with division, and the notion that ‘we're not meant to like these people’. I just feel like this show just makes us all go, ‘Well, there's more that brings us together and makes us similar than divides us’. We all want to be kind to each other. We were all brought up to be kind and loving. And I think sometimes we forget it and when we watch the news, it's just two polar extremes we see. I think this show just reminds us that now, as we're all human and we're all good by nature, we want to help each other."

John: "It tells a really interesting story that a lot of people don't know. It became a kind of famous Canadian story. But it wasn't really a famous story anywhere else in the world. When you get into it, it's a story of coming together. But the key thing is, it's true. So everything we're telling you is not preachy; we're not lecturing, it's not fantastical, it’s all based in fact. I think we all want to be as good as those guys in Gander. But whether we can be or not, we don't know until we're thrown into it. I think, if we were ever stuck, we want to believe people would help us."

Do you think that audiences will respond to the show in a different way now after their experiences with Covid-19?

John: "I think they’ll personalise it. Instead of it being about other people, on a rock in the middle of the northeast tip of North America, it becomes about the person who lives around the corner from you, the person who made sandwiches or did the shopping for the old lady up the road because she couldn't get out, or the people who picked someone up and took them to the doctor, or who looked after those who’d lost people. It’s going to be very charged in that theatre. There’s a great saying at the end of the show: we honour what was lost, but we remember what we found. And I think that as we move out of this, we can't ever forget what we lost. Because we lost so much. But I hope we've found things that can make us better."

Mark: "There are so many things that have happened to me over the last year that would not have happened, were it not for the pandemic. People reaching out. I think it will bring all those things to the fore. It's probably more relevant now than it's ever been."

Tara: "For older audience members, they can remember the disaster and how it felt around the world. But we also get so many young people come and see the show, who haven’t seen that footage and don’t have that emotion. So now, this will be what they relate to. They'll understand that feeling of being stranded, that feeling of not being able to go out or be where you want to be or see your family. I think when younger people come and see the show, and they see people like Hannah, who is desperate to get back to New York to see her son, they will relate to that. I think there's going to be so many more layers."

Where in the world are you looking forward to going when you can?

Tara: "I'm looking forward to my mum coming here. She’s from England and lives in Spain. She normally comes back all the time. We’ve also got friends in Las Vegas that we’re desperate to see, and a beautiful place in Mexico that’s about the only place I’ve really relaxed."

Mark: "I think my spiritual home is New York. The culture, the theatre, the energy and the buzz. I think that will be the first place I want to go because I just love going to the TKTS booth and booking whatever I can see, and being completely blown away like you always are on Broadway. It breaks my heart to think that the West End and Broadway have been dark for so long. I want to get back there. I’ve realised I don’t travel enough too – what was I waiting for? I’m going to just do it now."

John: "I lived in New York and I’ve got a lot of friends and family there, so getting back to New York, and getting back to Broadway and seeing the community there. I’d sacrifice that for my wife though, because she’s from Victoria, Vancouver Island, and she hasn’t seen her family in two years. I can’t wait for her to be able to get back and see all her loved ones."

Come From Away reopens at the Phoenix Theatre, London on 22 July 2021.

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