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Wednesday 25 September 2019

Come from Away, Musical, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Phoenix Theatre London, 8* out of 10

Built on true Canadian hospitality, politeness and a bit of pathos, Come from Away's originality in taking an unlikely subject as the basis for a  musical ultimately succeeds with audiences in its feel-good mission and has an Olivier Award to show for it.

In the episodic rivulets flowing from the stormy seas of world history, interesting stories can be found which are waiting to be told. On 11 September 2011 thousands of people descended upon Gander, a small town with an enormous airport in Canada’s province of Newfoundland to commemorate the days they spent there 10 years earlier when the run of history was administered a violent jolt by the murderous attack of Al-Qaida, a violent Islamist organisation, on New York City and Washington DC.

In the wake of the airplane hijackings and attacks on the twin- towers, all US airspace was closed for several days. The planes that were in the air expecting to enter the United States when the relevant authorities took this decision had to land wherever possible outside the USA. Gander had a giant airport, because in the era before passenger planes had jet engines all flights from Europe to the US had to refuel there. In 2001 plans to close the little-used airfield of Gander had been made but not yet implemented. And so, 38 airplanes and 6500 passengers were diverted to this sleepy town.

Come from Away is a musical-treatment of the events at Gander where the 7000- inhabitant town of Gander and surrounding villages stood up to the challenge of welcoming 6500 unexpected and upset airline passengers and crew from all over the world. A random cosmopolitan crowd quite literally if gently falling from the skies into a very quiet, somewhat backwoods region. Come from Away shows us how the local community pulled together to give them a home from away and how some of the random encounters played out. 

Based on in-depth interviews the musical written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff this is a charming, feel-good musical with fair attempts at moving moments about airplane passengers and crews in temporary distress. They were helped by the Newfoundlanders of Gander and surrounding towns in a necessarily improvised but heart-warmingly cordial manner with no expectation of any payment in return. 

What makes the production work is above all the lively ensemble performance, with actors slipping into different roles as needed, the on-stage musical accompaniment, direction by Christopher Ashley, scenic design (Beowulf Boritt)  as well as the lighting design (Howell Binkley) which transforms the stage space instantly into into school halls, outside scenery and aircraft cabins as needed. The music is very pleasant too. 

All this makes Come from Away a very enjoyable watchable and original show for those of us in the West who like to be helpful to strangers and for cosmopolitans who often take airplanes for jobs and holidays.

What the story does not have is conflict or real tension between its protagonists, although, or perhaps because, the murderous conflict of which the 9/11 attack is a part plays a significant role in the background: it is, of course, our own view of western civilization as a friendly and cosmopolitan good that is being celebrated in this musical, and the other side of the coin, western civilization being seen as unfriendly and violent to non-westerners is only hinted at. Similarly, the potential conflict between gay city dwellers and manly Newfoundland lumberjacks is also resolved in polite and down to earth Canadian tolerance which although it sometimes skips the province of Quebec, apparently reaches all the way to Newfoundland. There is no black-face future Canadian prime minister anywhere to be seen either. Also, in the era of Greta Thunberg’s admonitions to us all on the evils of air-travel for our environment, any story which has only positive things to say about airline pilots and frequent fliers and the kind earthlings whose beautiful environment they gradually destroy may leave some of us feeling slightly queasy.

If such potential reservations do not put you off, then you are likely to enjoy this enthusiastically performed and similarly received award-winning musical as much as the audiences who love it. Moreover, Come from Away is also the proud recipient of a 2019 Olivier Award for best direction of a musical.

Come from Away in happy action

Monday 2 September 2019

Tel Aviv on Fire, Film, Israel 2018, directed by Sameh Zoabi, 8* out of 10

With the multi-award-winning “Tel Aviv on Fire”, Israeli-Palestinian-Arab writer and director Sameh Zoabi brings us a funny, intelligent and most enjoyable comedy/farce against the absurd background of the multi-layered relationship between the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and West of the Jordan and Jewish Israelis. For security reasons, Israeli soldiers interfere sometimes reluctantly sometimes over-enthusiastically, always significantly in the lives of the Palestinians living in East- Jerusalem and on the Westbank of the Jordan. That interference is largely unwelcome, but after more than 50 years, can lead to unexpected areas of reluctant cooperation. It has great potential not only for drama and tragedy but also for irony and humour. And there is plenty of irony and humour to be found here.

Salem (Kais Nashef), a Jerusalemite Palestinian has obtained a minor job on the Palestinian Soap opera “Tel Aviv on Fire” through literal nepotism: his uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawalha) is the producer. The soap opera is a fictional story playing in 1967 about a Palestinian woman, played by the French Arab actress Tala (Lubna Azabal) who pretends to be an Israeli Jewess and tries seduce an Israeli general (Yousef Sweid) played by a Palestinian Arab actor and have him reveal Israel’s secret military plans. Salem’s excellent knowledge of Hebrew makes him the go-to guy for authentic Hebrew dialogue between them. The soap opera is a hit in the Palestinian territories and Israel particularly with the female demographic. When Salem tries to verify one of his Hebrew expressions (something like sex bomb) at an Israeli checkpoint, the bomb part, gets him an unintended interview with the checkpoint’s commanding officer, Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton) and lets him believe that he is a writer on “Tel Aviv on Fire”. Bored with his checkpoint command, and convinced of his yet untried talents as a creative in the media industry, Assi coerces Salem into giving him influence on the development of the plot and the character of the Israeli General, initially to impress his wife and her girlfriends. Salem finds himself between the rock of the Israeli checkpoint officer who wants to be a screenwriter and the hard place of satisfying the Arab financiers of the soap opera he works on. 

In the 21st century we have become so used to the fact that reality mirrors the most unlikely soap opera plots. Moreover, the actors who are believed to be their fictional characters by their viewers are becoming the most successful politicians in elections. Therefore, it is almost a relief when a comedy farce comes along where it is fiction which subtly chimes with reality and not the other way round. 

The screenplay for Tel Aviv on Fire is written by a Palestinian-Israeli graduate of Tel Aviv and Columbia University Sameh Zoabi and Dan Kleinman a professor teaching in the Columbia University Screenwriting Program. Here is a film about a soap opera which is being developed against the ever more misunderstood and often absurd context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its thesis is that the psychological and practical adaptations of Israelis and Palestinians to their situation can be seen not only as drama and tragedy but also as giving rise to irony and humour on both sides. And you the viewer can decide about the plausibility of that thesis.

It is, of course, easier to see the humour in the situation if you are a Palestinian-Arab with Israeli citizenship or a professor at Columbia University living in New York than if you are a Palestinian Arab living West of the Jordan in the permanent limbo of a situation which is marked by restrictions on travel as well as delay and potential humiliation at checkpoints. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv of Fire is a competently directed if a bit messy comedy which often hits the spot. Strong performances by Kais Nashef and Yaniv Biton as well as Lubna Azabal a Belgian actress with Moroccan and Spanish roots playing a Palestinian French actress in turn playing a Palestinian woman spy pretending to be the Israeli Jewish lover of an Israeli General before the 1967 six-day war. Confused? You won’t be once you have seen this very enjoyable and witty comedy, which richly deserves the international awards it has already received. Warmly recommended.