The Beautiful and the Ugly in Come from Away

The Canadian musical Come from Away calls to mind an ancient proverb: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. And history seems to suggest that this is true –  nothing induces unity like a common enemy. From wartime collaborations against fascism to more recent temporary togetherness in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, human nature does seem to thrive on the support of like minds.

In Come from Away the enemy in question is those responsible for the attacks on the Twin Towers. The musical tells the true story of the 6,700 ‘plane people’ who found themselves stranded in the Newfoundland town of Gander when all planes were grounded from September 11th to 15th in 2001. This melting pot of unexpected visitors experience the best of the human spirit. They are welcomed, fed, and housed the town’s community halls, schools, theatres, churches, private homes, and pretty much anywhere there is space for them.  The instinctive human characteristic, to be kind to those in need, is immediately to the fore. And the Islanders and Plane People have one thing in common: their enemy is one and the same. Through an ugly situation, the beauty of humanity comes shining through.

The sense of community spirit is enhanced through one of the musical’s key features: the use of a chorus. In classical Greek drama, the purpose of a chorus was to provide commentary and context for the audience. In other words, to give cohesion and unity. In Come from Away the chorus – the unified voice of the citizens – can be seen as metaphor for societal oneness and camaraderie.

The diversity of the Plane People is highlighted by the ensemble storytelling, enabling audiences to glimpse snapshots of the lives and experiences of multiple ‘characters’.  Among the amalgam of stranded passengers are Captain Beverley Bass, the first female captain for American airlines, gay LA couple Kevin and Kevin, and newly-formed transatlantic pairing Nick and Diane, thrown together in Gander.  Lifelong friendships are formed and a homespun element adds to the ‘warm and fuzzy’ vibe. The twelve actors onstage step out of their roles to narrate their stories, with minimal staging forcing the audience to focus on the narration and the interactions.  The kindness of strangers takes centre stage, as made pointed in ‘Welcome to the Rock’ and summarised in this line:

‘We all come from everywhere, so we all come from far away’.

This all sounds very feel-good, as befitting the season. Patrons of Sydney’s Theatre Royal, where Come from Away is showing until 23rd December, may well expect to leave the auditorium with a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

But this is a musical that is also realistic. The ugly side of human nature punctuates the warmth, as in scenes of prejudice against an Egyptian Muslim passenger who ‘looks like a terrorist’ (is he one of the ‘common enemy’ and a natural target for burgeoning Islamophobia?) and the brawling in a queue to use the phone. A black passenger from New York struggles to accept that he is trusted by the islanders. And Hannah, who is waiting for news of her firefighter son back at the scene of the attacks, reminds us of the reason why this disparate group of strangers has been yoked together in the first place.  Yet the differences between the Islanders and Plane People are present from the outset, if only through the Newfoundland dialect which distinguishes them from the ‘outsiders’. This darker side is not a weakness, however; a treatise on peaceful pluralism would not ring true, and would patronise audiences.

Cynicism is politically relevant and is a natural side-effect of a world that often shows us its worst. What Come from Away does ooze, though, is the notion that kindness always trumps scepticism – and that isheartwarming. It just sometimes needs a common enemy to help it along its way.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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