Come From Away – Abbey Theatre – Review by Paddy McGovern
The Abbey Theatre in a Co-Production with Junkyard Dog Productions and Smith & Brant Theatricals – Until 19th January
Production will move to London’s Phoenix Theatre – Jan 30th to Feb 6th
Photography by Matthew Murphy
The immediate advice to anyone with an interest in good theatre or musicals this Christmas is simple: don’t miss Come From Away at the Abbey Theatre. Although standing ovations are frequently accorded to mediocre productions and performances in Dublin, the cheering standing ovation for this one was well deserved. It is an evening that will uplift the heart but engage the head a bit too.
The play with music, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is based on the actual events that occurred when planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland and grounded there for several days, on “9/11”, when the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Centre were destroyed with a catastrophic loss of life. The stranded passengers and air crew and the generous community who opened their hearts and their houses to receive them are the characters. The production has a lot to say but it makes its points intelligently, engagingly and above all entertainingly. It promotes, without preaching, a worldview of humanity, acceptance and generosity in the face of a world where destruction, mistrust and prejudice are never far away. Refreshingly, it does so without resorting to facile stereotypes, mawkish sentiment or patronising its audience.
The twelve actors who play all parts are an outstanding ensemble of performers, slipping between roles and moods, with admirable ease. A hat, a prayer mat, a change of jacket and the illusion is complete. A chair swivels and we swivel with it from a local bar to the school gymnasium to aeroplane seat; it becomes a barbecue or a platform for a scenic view. Howell Binkley’s ingenious lighting design transforms the set into an endless number of locations and times of day. At the heart of the piece is the tightly written book and lyrics and an uplifting music score with fine singing actors and a small group of brilliant musicians. Precisely choreographed song-and-dance scenes give way to quiet introspective moments where individual stories are distilled into a single phone call or a quiet chat. Musical Staging by Kelly Devine and direction by Christopher Ashley are superb, sharp and focused.
While the evening is wonderfully entertaining, it is not without a serious subtext. The plot takes full advantage of the random groupings of humanity that are inevitably thrown together in a commercial flight. Differences of race, nationality, religion and sexuality are noted. Related prejudices are held up to the light and shown to be hollow, rooted in ignorance rather than reality. One of the most telling moments occurs when, other prejudices and stereotypes having been exposed for what they are, a residual Islamophobia still lingers in the air. It is not a play that would find favour at a Trump rally, where the players might be dubbed a dangerous caravan, but it just might even win over a few MAGA cap wearers. In this and so many other respects, it is the perfect antidote to the ugliness of so much current political and social discourse – just what we need in this darkest month of the year.
Blow away those Brexit blues and treat yourself to an evening at the Abbey where Come from Away continues until January 19. We will be lucky if we see a more uplifting show on any Dublin stage in 2019.