Words: Markus Bidaux
On 11 September 2001, my boyfriend (who I wouldn't meet until 15 years later) was on a United flight from London to Chicago. He was working as cabin crew and tells me that one passenger asked him why the flight was circling over the Atlantic, Leigh did not know, but said it was nothing to be concerned about.
Then Leigh took two kids up to the cockpit to meet the pilots, when he opened the door to the cockpit the captain abruptly told him to get out. Taking kids to meet the pilots was commonplace so it was odd that he was shouted at.
Later, the captain made an announcement to the passengers: America had been attacked. That is all they knew, that and the flight was being diverted to Gander in the Canadian province of Newfoundland.
The town of Gander only had a population of 9,000 but was also home to what was North America's biggest airport which was used to refuel planes before aircraft advanced enough to make it across the globe without needing to refuel. The first place in North America the Beatles and the Queen touched down was Gander.
Leigh's flight was one of the last of the 38 planes that were diverted to Gander on 11 September. They were one of the last planes to arrive and he said the airport was packed with all the planes parked up, it was a big airport, but not built for that many large modern aircraft.
This week we were invited to go see the musical ‘Come From Away’ at the Phoenix Theatre in London's West End. The musical was launched in Canada in 2013 and is based on the real people and stories that manifested during the five days that 7000 were stuck in Gander while North American flights were grounded.
Come From Away made its West End debut in early 2019, but a new cast has just taken over and it just scooped the Best New Musical at the WhatsOnStage Awards, which it can add to its collection of awards that included Tony and Laurence Olivier Awards.
I'm Canadian and my boyfriend was there for the whole ordeal, so it is almost sacrilege we had not been to see it yet. I was told by colleagues who had seen it that it was very good, but I was not expecting to love it as much as I did.
The performance starts with a rousing song performed by the cast of 12 who spend the two hour long musical on stage with no intermission. The music has a very Irish folk melody to it, which is true to Newfoundland's culture and the live band stays in that style throughout. Each of the actors plays multiple roles (85 in all!) with numerous accents and just a few props to differentiate one character from another, but I am never confused about who is who.
There are multiple storylines running through the musical about the passengers coping with being stranded in Gander and the locals who welcomed them with open arms. The musical manages to successfully include a blossoming romance alongside topics of Islamophobia, female empowerment and grief. There is also a prominent gay storyline weaved in and for a plot that revolves around one of the most tragic and world changing events of the 21st century there are loads of laughs throughout. Laughter really is the best medicine.
I have found most musicals have a lull in them where I just want it to skip to the next chapter, but Come From Away's pacing is relentless. They have five days of story to fit into two hours, but it never feels rushed either.
After the show, I tell him it is the best thing I have seen on stage in ages, and he agrees, saying that the story was accurate and that it was an emotional ride seeing it all re-enacted on stage - though he adds with a chuckle that the locals did not break into song nearly as often as they do on stage...
'Come From Away' is at the is at the Phoenix Theatre, London. For the best deals on tickets and shows click here.