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Before jet engines, Transatlantic planes had to refuel in a small town called Gander on the remote tip of Newfoundland. Once flying times expanded, Gander’s huge landing strip was left rather forlorn and the town reverted to its sleepy backwater nature. All that changed however during the course of five days in 2001 when, in the sudden aftermath of the horrors of 9/11, 38 incoming planes carrying 7000 passengers had to be grounded and the nearest spot they could find was Gander.
Suddenly the small town nearly doubled in size with the arrival of a motley bunch of distressed and disgruntled people from all over the world. They’d mostly been kept in the dark and remember this was before mobile phones were common. When the school and community halls proved insufficient for the task, the locals welcomed the lost tribe into their homes.
It was this touching tale of rural Canadian kindness which inspired Irene Sankoff and David Hein to write a musical, and its wholesome cheer makes it the perfect balm for our troubled times.
The first thing that strikes you is the accents, like someone failing badly at an Irish one, but it is authentic. The music too is choral and propulsive and very Celtic accented with fiddles and bodhráns, another Irish link which gives it all the air of a pub lock-in at times. In many ways this is what it was, folk were stranded, with very little information, no idea when they might be moving on and so after the initial anger and fear subsided, they chilled, helped along by the sheer bearhug welcome from the locals. There are witty jokes at the expense of the fearful metropolitan types when confronted by simple old fashioned acts of generosity. They learned to stop worrying about where to put their wallets.
A tight ensemble cast of 12, for once looking like real people, switch between playing multiple locals and passengers and Christopher Ashley's nimble direction keeps the action zipping along for its 1hr 40 duration.
In many ways it resembles those star-studded '70s disaster movies, packed with juicy character turns for clever actors. Here we have the big, affable, town mayor (Clive Carter) with a weakness for whiskey, a nervous rookie reporter (Emma Salvo) overwhelmed by it all, a bickering gay couple both called Kevin and a bashful Brit (Robert Hands) who ends up proposing to an American divorcee (Helen Hobson). This true romance is one of the many heartening tales which emerged from the sadness. There's even a local woman who took it upon herself to feed the animals found on the planes, including a pregnant bonobo chimp.
There is also one woman (Cat Simmons) who is desperate to hear news of her New York fireman son, but apart from this we actually hear very little about Twin Towers. The writers have very cleverly avoided explicit discussions and while this might puzzle some, it’s a wise call. After all, what more can be said, and here instead the spotlight is on how the awfulness of that day unleashed something better.
The occasional cruelties are not ignored either such as a Muslim chef who gets a raw deal from the more fearful passengers and unintentionally from local security forces.
Rachel Tucker (of Wicked fame) confirms her star quality and gets the biggest number playing the leading crew member, a female pilot who had blazed the trail for others.
Bursting with energy it's a hymn to community, to decency and to Canadian’ness and all the better for that.