Theatrical: ‘Come from away’

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On Saturday I went to the theatre, to see the deeply controversial play ‘Come from away’.

Why is this uplifting musical so problematic you might ask. The crux of the issue is that it is being held in the Abbey Theatre – the national theatre of Ireland. The Abbey receives millions of euros in state funding each year – over half the annual budget of the Arts Council of Ireland. Its remit is to develop and promote the Irish theatrical arts – acting; writing and directing. For the past two years the theatre has been run by Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, and they have implemented many changes in the operations of the venue. Some are amazing – including the ‘first free previews’ which involves the first performance of any show being offered to the public free of charge, to encourage people to attend the theatre. Some are more problematic. Namely the number of co-productions the Abbey now stages with independent companies. These companies are private enterprises that don’t necessarily pay their actors and crew the same wages as the Abbey does. The theatre is such a precarious profession that when the national stage is occupied by thespians who are paid less than the Abbey actors, it drives down the median wages of the profession as a whole. The companies have developed their own scripts (and taken all the risks in doing so), so taxpayers money is not being used to develop and nurture new talent. That risk has fallen on the shoulder of the independents, but the Abbey reaps the benefit when staging these previously performed works. A few weeks ago over 300 theatre makers wrote to the government minister to express their anger at how they feel that they are being harmed by the new Abbey methods of working.

‘Come from away’ – the musical that I saw on Saturday – was the show that broke the camel’s back. A Canadian-British co-production, it is a smash hit Tony award winning musical that is enjoying its European premiere in Dublin during December and January, before transferring to the West End in London in February. Not a single Irish person is employed in the show. Which I guess is a bit strange considering it is being performed on the national stage, while subsidised by Irish taxpayers. I have no doubt that the incredible cast of this work are handsomely remunerated – as they deserve. Meanwhile the national theatre is currently out of bounds for Irish artists. Which sort of defeats the purpose of a state funded national theatre to develop national talent.

Having said all that, ‘Come from away’ is an absolutely stunning piece of work. Set in Gander, Newfoundland, it tells the tale of an isolated Canadian town of 9,000 inhabitants, whose airport accommodated 38 grounded international flights in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 bombings in New York. The townsfolk unite to provide food, shelter and comfort to the 7,000 passengers during that week of tragedy. It is an incredibly moving and effective play emphasising the intrinsic kindness of human beings – rural Canadians in particular. It is an unwitting advert for the loveliness of Canadian people – although I needed no convincing of that myself having been there on occasion. It is a show with a powerful energy, relentless drive, and convincing performances from the ensemble cast. The songs are incredible. The performances are mesmerising – simultaneously hilarious and tragic. It was refreshing to see the music performed entirely onstage by the band. This is a full on Broadway musical with jazz hands. I loved it.

I am usually mean with my standing ovations, as I think they should only be given for outstanding shows that actually merit them. As soon as the lights went down at the finale I was on my feet, applauding maniacally. Amazing.

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