Encapsulating the life-changing experience of townsfolk and 7,000 passengers (from 93 countries) when 38 planes were forced to land at Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Come From Away was first seen on Broadway in 2017, arriving in London two years later.
Since then, of course, the world has turned upside down all over again, not least when it comes to air travel. Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks this September, the producers have boldly reopened over the summer, following the resumption of capacity attendance.
Still, there are no guarantees the Covid-related spectre of enforced self-isolation, which has grounded Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella until mid-August, won’t affect this show. Yet everyone is pulling together to try to cope - and you have to play your part too, turning up armed with Covid-certification.
For that twin example – of exceptional group endeavour in 2001 and now – as much as for the way that the show tries to make sense of a moment of global upset (something that can’t help but feel newly relevant), there has never been a better time to catch it.
What the deft, well-researched piece, written by the Canadian husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, conveys with terrific elan is a real-time sense of uncertainty, confusion, solidarity and resilience. Right now, the tingle of anticipation and mood of rallying is palpable in the audience too. We’re not out of the woods, and we’re more in grateful need of companionable music and shared warmth than ever.
The risk the show took was that in seizing on a positive instance of kindness in the face of terrorist barbarity, it would over-accentuate the feelgood message. My misgivings on that front haven’t entirely receded.
The audience is immediately welcomed and galvanised by a foot-stomping ensemble number Welcome to the Rock. “Welcome to the farthest place you'll get from Disneyland…” runs one line but there’s something sanitised even cute about the sweetly rugged good cheer.
At this second viewing, though, I’m far less troubled by, and much more appreciative of, the oblique way the 9/11 attacks are referenced. As it moves chronologically through the hours, then days, during which world news trickled through, Come From Away reminds us how relatively scarce information was in the pre-smart phone age and affirms how mentally all-consuming the near-at-hand emergency operation was.
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley (with Alan Berry as musical director) the 100-minute evening teems with theatrical possibility and personal metamorphosis: the dozen-strong principal acting company keep transforming through swift, sharp manoeuvres, shifting on wooden chairs from air-traffic control operatives, to airline pilots, to hunched passengers.
Their identities transform too: irritable frustration, trapped on a runway, gives way to cavorting revelry in a local bar. As people from all walks are thrown together, they jettison psychological baggage and past selves.
There are abundant comic moments: heads rising in slow-motion disbelief to register an obstinate moose blocking a bus, say, or the sudden lip-smacking passion of Alasdair Harvey’s uptight Brit, Nick and Kate Graham’s Dallas-bound Diane. There are sharper incidents too: an explosion of xenophobia, a strip-search humiliation for a Muslim passenger.
Some songs stand out from the crowd – not least Alice Fearn’s wistful delivery of Me and the Sky, charting her female pilot character’s exceptional progress through male-dominated ranks; others merge into the Irish-influenced musical flow. It’s much more than the sum of its parts, though, taking us on a journey back in time and yet helping us find our way forward. The standing ovations are fully merited.
Tickets: 0844 871 7615; www.ComeFromAwayLondon.co.uk