It is a life and love-affirming tale of human nature triumphing over man-made horror. 38 civilian and four military planes were forced to land at the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after all domestic flights were grounded across the US following the attacks. Gander used to be a major stop-over airport for transatlantic flights to refuel but was lost in the past until the most modern of catastrophes flung it back into the heart of international affairs. This new musical has been a sensation on Broadway and opened officially in London last night.
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The book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein are already wonderful enough and the performances are equally impressive but an incredible debut in the West End had one last surprise. It was an emotionally charged night, magnified by the fact that some of the original passengers and townsfolk who shared such an extraordinary few days together in 2001 were also in the audience.
The local characters and musical styles play on the folksy themes, celebrating the Celtic roots of the region and the homespun generosity and humanity which still exists out there. It is too easy to be cynical, yet wonderful to be reminded (and reassured) it still exists. There is also plenty of dry humour throughout and the show deftly avoids mawkishness at all times.
The stranded passengers, meanwhile, are a broad cross-section of classes, races and sexualities, including someone who “looks like a “terrorist”. It would be very easy to slip into predictable liberal pontificating that we are all the same under the skin but the show does not shy away from the uglier sides of human nature, either. And so, for example, the beautiful multi-faith Prayer is followed by the anger and attacks of On The Edge.
Ultimately, though, this is a show which celebrates generosity of spirit and faith in human nature. And if Gander seems too good to be true, numerous testimonials over the years have backed it up.
Mayor Claude Elliott retired in 2017 after 21 years in office and said: “What we consider the most simple thing in life is to help people. You’re not supposed to look at people’s colour, their religion, their sexual orientation — you look at them as people.” He came on stage with his successor at the curtain call to reiterate their message to a cheering crowd.
The small cast portray multiple characters, both locals and the ‘come from aways.’ The lighting and staging are simple with few flourishes. This is a simple show about simple folk with a very simple message. No tricks are required.
And yet, this is a show about everything and everyone. The cast are an incredibly refreshing mix of ages, races and body types and remind you how rare it is to see a West End musical where most people on stage stage are not predominantly young, buff and beautiful.
Of course, this is a show about real people. It is also a show that finds beauty everywhere, within and without.
The performance are uniformly excellent but Rachel Tucker shines as the pilot Beverley (the history-making first US airlines female pilot) and Cat Simmons has the most gorgeous voice and brings real pain to Hannah, the mother desperately waiting for news of her firefighter son in New York.
Helen Dobson and Robert Hands beautifully play out the love story of a Texan divorcee and a stuffy British oil executive who both thought love had passed them by. 18 years later the real life Diane and Nick walked onto stage and there was not a dry eye in the house.
In fact, this is a show which constantly builds the emotion, but cleverly does not use many of the usual theatrical and musical conventions.
The excellent live band on stage keep the percussive rhythms going throughout and there are few clear breaks between songs. At times, you want it to pause just so you can cheer and applaud, but instead the energy and tension build on stage and in the audience.
The show is 101 minutes with no interval and by the time it reaches the end there was simply no question the entire audience would rise as one. United.
The lady next to me had seen it nine times, since the early try-outs, on to Broadway and now London. “This happens every single night,” she told me. And so it should.
Come from near, come from far, come from away – just make sure you come and see this show.