Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Come From Away - Phoenix Theatre

Beyond the strength of the production, I was struck by two questions when thinking about how to present my thoughts on Come From Away:
  1. Is art/entertainment based on 9/11 and such events exploitative and distasteful or educational and poignant? 
  2. Does ‘hype’ hinder the extent to which you can enjoy something?
And I’ve spent the last few days flitting between the two possible angles for this post, without coming to any conclusion on which approach to take. 

A few months ago – hell, it’s been five already – I made the decision to stop putting pressure on formatting my blog posts as ‘conventional’ reviews, as this was taking a lot of fun out of the process [read more here, if you want to know what that’s all about]. Long story short, I’ve instead attempted to shoehorn both questions plus all my thoughts on the show into one singular narrative. I would say wish me luck, but perhaps I should be wishing luck to anyone who decides to continue reading…

Come From Away is arguably a 9/11 musical, though it doesn’t focus on the devastating event itself. The show tells the true story of 7,000 passengers who became stranded in a small town in Newfoundland, Canada following the closure of US airspace. It’s a story of how a community came together to welcome a group that almost doubled their town’s population. It’s about human nature, culture, conflict and, above all, kindness. In this sense, it’s not a piece that directly dramatises the tragedy of 9/11, but if it did, would this be too close to the mark?

Art is cathartic; throughout history it has been a method of exploring thoughts and feelings, a way of documenting events both celebratory and tragic. Art continues to be a popular and effective means of education and paying homage to those who have suffered. God knows how much less I would know about the world and some of its past without books, films and theatre. One strikingly apparent example is our country’s shameful colonial past. It’s something on which school history lessons barely scratched the surface, and it’s only down to literature and film that I even began to understand its full implications.

Clearly art that presents sombre or painful matters is important, but what about when this crosses into entertainment? Does that make it exploitative of those who suffered? It’s a complex one, because art must be consumed for it to have any impact, and artists need to earn from this consumption in order to make a living. So how do we decide if entertainment based on traumatic events is exploitative or educational? I think it comes down to how its presented.

Come From Away certainly balances this well (hallelujah, she’s finally talking about the show again). While it’s a 9/11 story that focuses on the inconveniences of those stranded and those who took them in – undeniably more fortunate than those directly involved – it presents the acts of terrorism with delicacy and respect and honours those who lost their lives or loved ones. Comedy has a significant presence throughout the show, but these laugh-out-loud moments are at the expense of human nature, and are astutely placed within the piece’s poignancy.

Onto point two: hype. I’m not a big fan of the word. It tends to be thrown around the internet as a negative sentiment, with people refusing to like things for the sake of disagreeing with ‘mainstream’ opinions. Unfortunately, it is probably the best word for describing the excitement and conversation around, well, anything.

Being in a complete theatre bubble on social media, it’s hard to grasp the extent of awareness around Come From Away before it arrived in London. Within the theatre sphere, it has certainly carried its weight from Broadway, but I wouldn’t say that people outside this bubble - even those who frequent the theatre multiple times a year – were anticipating its arrival.

As soon as I started hearing things about the show on Broadway, I jumped on the soundtrack. I didn’t really connect with the music at the time, but in situ it is exceedingly effective. The onstage band are playing relentlessly throughout the 100-minute performance, the folk and Celtic infused music acting as a heartbeat that strums along underneath the speech and conversational song. This constant beat transpires much of the fear to begin with, the sense of things spiralling out of control, but as the community – locals and strangers alike - come together, the melodies become more settled into the speed at which it’s carried through.

The narrative structure is another constantly moving piece, with the 12 performers representing between them an impressive array of the thousands of stories that the creators of the show attempted to collect. The actors generally don’t deliver more than a few lines in each character before someone else steps in. This constant revolve of stories and personalities creates a thick and busy atmosphere, alluding to the 16,000 people that inhabited the small town over this period.

There are a couple of stand-out moments, such as Cat Simmon’s devastating portrayal of a mother unable to contact her missing firefighter son in New York, and Rachel Tucker’s powerful rendition of ‘Me And The Sky’. Beyond this, the sense of community and equality are carried through narrative structure, with a relatively equal spread of melody and dialogue among the 12.

Come From Away is undisputedly a special piece of theatre, but my point around hype comes down to the fact that I spent most of the performance waiting to feel something that never came to me. With all the praise and comments of how uplifting yet heart-breaking the show is, I felt as though I was inadvertently waiting to be overwhelmed, and consequently left feeling a little deflated. As much as I enjoyed Come From Away and think it is an excellent piece of theatre, I do think that hype can somewhat hinder the extent to which you can enjoy something, and perhaps I could have felt differently about the show if I had entered the theatre blissfully unaware.

*I was gifted this ticket, but all words and opinions are my own.

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