24 July 2019

Review: Come From Away

Come From Away
multiple producers
19 July 2019 - preview performance
Comedy Theatre

"Come From Away" Australian cast. Photo by Jeff Busby

A musical about planes and 11 September 2001 is as unlikely as a musical about feeding animals, making sandwiches and donating toilet paper. But Come From Away is all of this and everything; it's just everything.

This Australian production is the tenth to open since its first season in 2015 at La Jolla in LA. It opened on Broadway in 2017. Director Christopher Ashley won a Tony, but Dear Evan Hanson won Best Musical

"Come from aways" are what Newfoundlanders call anyone who visits. Known locally as The Rock, Newfoundland is an island off the west coast of Canada. The small city of Gander – about 9000 people lived there in 2001 – has a large airport because it used to be a re-fuelling stop. When USA airspace was closed, for the first time ever, on 11 September 2001, 38 flights were diverted to Gander. As some locals realised, it was as much for the airport as for them being a smaller target than the large Canadian cities with their fully-equipped international airports and hotels.

There were 6579 people on the planes and they spent five days in Gander and surrounding towns.

Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music and lyrics for Come From Away. They were in New York on September 11 2001. Ten years later they were in Newfoundland for commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the arrival of the "plane people" at Gander Airport. They spent a month at The Rock interviewing people and left feeling like locals.

They 16,000 collected stories and structured them through composite characters to focus on the passengers and pilot –  the amazing Beverly Bass – of an American Airlines flight and their relationships with the people of Gander. The composites take nothing away from the individual stories they are based on and it is a masterclass in creating a story line that embraces many stories.

"Come From Away" Australian cast. Photo by Jeff Busby

The stage feels like a log cabin in the woods and the opening song, "Welcome to the Rock", introduces local characters, Gander and the Newfoundland-style of Celtic-fusion music with its button accordion and fiddle. When three people turn on their radios, everyone who remembers that day in 2001 is with them and it becomes a story that reaches to all the "aways" where we come from.

The cast of 12 play multiple roles and move seamlessly from Newfoundlanders to plane people to a chorus who are moving the mis-matched chairs to become classrooms, planes and cliff-top views, and making costume changes seem instant. It's easy to forget that there are only 12 people and a band on stage as the cast make it feel like they are telling their own stories.

As Gander prepares for visitors, the people on planes can't disembark. Fear and rumours are spreading and even little bottles of booze can't take away the hell of repeat watchings of ShrekDr Doolittle and Titanic. Some passengers spent 28 hours in their planes, many didn't speak English, and when they were finally loaded into buses, they were driven into the dark not knowing that sandwiches and clean clothes were waiting for them.

And when they finally see those moments that were played non-stop on televisions, we we are with the plane people, too

The next five days in Gander includes stories of donated clothes, getting drunk, kissing fish, falling in love, having showers in the houses of Walmart staff, looking after pets who can't leave cargo, not sleeping, making fish and cheese, and not being able to contact family in New York.

When the plane people struggle with the inadequacy of "thank you", "You'd do the same" becomes the Gander response. The need to do SOMETHING in the face of seemingly insurmountable horror often leads to doing nothing. But the tiniest somethings add up. The people of Gander were able to help. And they did. If anyone thinks donating a roll of toilet paper is nothing, I hope you're never in a situation when you'd give up anything for a roll.

"You'd do the same" is wonderful for the "Make a Wish" kids who didn't get to Disneyland. Of course, we'd do the same. But it also addresses that people who looked like they were from the Middle East were treated with suspicion and strip searched. "You'd do the same."

There are many reasons why Come From Away audiences are often in tears.

Leaving the show on the adrenalin of a standing ovation, it's inevitable to share your story of when you accepted help or where you were on 11 September 2001. It can feel a day that marks the time when hate and fear took hold our lives and haven't let go, but we still make sandwiches for strangers.

Come From Away is positive and sentimental without being melodramatic, patriotic without being alienating, and honest without a hint of cynicism. It celebrates the people of Gander, but it opens up the opportunity to share so many of our own stories.

I'll be going again.

"Come From Away" Australian cast. Photo by Jeff Busby

*I was in Canberra working as director of an arts festival. I'd been to a production of As You Like It and when I came home I put a video on. I almost ALWAYS put the TV on, but this time I didn't. Driving to work, I noticed that the traffic was quieter than normal, but thought nothing of it. It's always quiet in the mornings and when a staff member rang to tell me she'd be late because she'd been up all night watching TV, the conversation went:
"Have you been watching Buffy all night?"
"You don't know, do you?"
 I found someone who had CNN on their computer and watched it on repeat on a tiny screen.

09 July 2019

Review: THE CABIN!

Darebin Arts Speakeasy
5 July 2019
Northcote Town Hall
to 13 July

THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

THE CABIN! is horror show written by kids for adults. Over 200 school-age students contributed to through workshops and residency programs in the UK and Australia. Most were children from areas that don't have easy access to arts experiences.

Their work and ideas were brought together by lead artist JOF (Joseph O'Farrell), co-devisor Emily Tomlins and director Sarah Austin. It's performed by JOF and Emily with the support of group of local students and teenage guitarist Mariela Barajas Anderson.

Jof and monsters. THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

Since his early days in Melbourne with The Suitcase Royale – who remain one of my all-time favourite groups –, JOF has created, co-created and curated theatre and events (jofmakesart.com) that break down the artifice of theatre and find new ways to connect with audiences. He says that the question he always asks is"Who's not here?". It's not just who's not in the audience, but who's not having the experience of making the art. JOF is especially awesome at helping and letting children make art.

This work was created by children for adults; it isn't for under 10s. The script, story, designs and staging ideas all came from the children; the older people just put them together.

It begins with JOF in a purple suit as one of those ridiculous adults who think they can make theatre for kids but who just want to be a star themselves and Emily as the person in charge of the safety of the venue: two of the most-hated people in all of theatre. But one of them has a secret. And don't forget that this is a horror show.

There's a delight in being scared in a safe place; it's why we watch scary movies and go on roller coasters. THE CABIN! has all the delight while still looking at how genuine fear is so often dismissed. If a child is scared, take notice.

And, like some of the best horror, it's very funny – especially when the kids totally nail the adults.

Mariela Barajas Anderson. THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

There's also band called Bumsnogger, some super-wanky theatre jokes – people next to me had no idea why I thought sitting in a bench and singing numbers for Frankenstein on the Beach was so hilarious –, monster heads made from cereal boxes, blood, unseen hoards of zombies, hands in the dark, and a magnificent post-apocalyptic-style finale.

More of this kind of work, please. Lots more.

THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson