There’s a lot to love about Come from Away, the feelgood 9/11 musical, if you allow yourself to go with the flow of slightly hokey camaraderie. The songs are fun and serve the drama well; the staging is nifty, the actors stick refreshingly to the authentic side of slick, and there’s even a take-it-away moment for the humble bodhrán as part of a joyous ceilidh number.
Crafted as a hymn to the power of community, this story of how the Canadian island of Newfoundland coped with the arrival of 38 planeloads of traumatised passengers after the attack on the World Trade Center has carried its own community with it on its travels from a Canadian college to Broadway and on to London’s West End. “You’re writing a show about giving people sandwiches? Good luck with that!” the local airport director reportedly told the show’s creators, Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
And you can see his point: nothing much happens for not very long, though friendships are forged, relationships tested, and an unlikely romance blossoms between an uptight English oil executive and a lonely Texan divorcee. For those of us fortunate enough not to have been directly involved, 9/11 is chiefly notable today for the wars it unleashed around the world. This a big load for a single character to carry – and it is invested here in the tragicomic struggles of Muslim Ali to prove himself to be not a fundamentalist terrorist but an acclaimed chef.
Like most of the named characters, Ali is a composite of real people, played by an actor who doubles up, in this case, as a gay man. Though the casting makes an interesting connection between two embattled communities, I wished Ali had been given his own song. Watching his painful story flicker through the bonhomie felt uncomfortably like accompanying a once-bullied child to a jolly reunion of a class you weren’t in.
• Come from Away is at the Phoenix theatre, London, until 14 September