Union Theatre 10 August – 10 September. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
25 years after its original West end run, Children of Eden returns to London in a magical new production. A musical based on stories from the Old Testament may not sound too promising to some, but with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), and book by John Caird, this is a sublime piece of storytelling that side-lines the religion and explores what it means to be a parent.
Creating the world, Father (Joey Dexter) is like a child with a new toy, but the excitement he shares with Adam and Eve as they name the animals is soon replaced with frustration as Eve begins to ask too many questions and gives in to temptation, eating the forbidden fruit. Adam is forced to choose between Father and Eve, and leaves Eden, banished forever by their vengeful Father.
In the wilderness, Cain and Abel are born, and Cain has obviously inherited his mother’s inquisitive nature. He longs to explore beyond the waterfall, but Adam has forbidden this. Father secretly visits Cain and Abel, telling them that they are his hope for the future now, and promising to make them wives. But Cain refuses Father’s offer and disobeys Adam, resulting in a confrontation that ends with Cain killing Abel. Father watches all of this in despair, and decrees that Cain’s descendants shall all be marked to show their wickedness.
Many generations later, Noah has followed Father’s instructions to build an ark, and has found wives for two of his sons from the tribe of Seth. Japheth however is in love with Yonah, who wears the mark of Cain and should be left to die in the flood. Smuggling her onto the ark, he risks the wrath of his family. Father watches Adam deal with his son’s disobedience as they hope desperately for an end to the rain.
The mistakes of each generation, with parents trying heavy-handedly to protect their children from harm are accompanied by repeated musical themes that become increasingly poignant as the show progresses. The emotion boils over in The Hardest Part Of Love, where a despairing Father listens with growing realisation and acceptance to Noah singing about the joy and pain of being a parent, joining in with the line “children start to leave you on the day that they are born”.
Joey Dexter is full of energy as Father, equally strong in both light and dark moments. Stephen Barry as Adam and Noah has got one hell of a voice that packs in tons of emotion, and Natasha O’Brien is simply fantastic as Eve – full of gymnastic innocence and curiosity – and Mama Noah – stealing the show with her ballsy performance of Ain’t It Good? and making the most of her comedy moments. Guy Woolf as Cain and Japheth also stands out – embodying the frustration and rebelliousness of the characters with skill and belting out his numbers with aplomb. The whole cast give wonderful performances, making the most of Lucie Pankhurst’s unfussy choreography.
The simple costumes – all muted tones with a touch of colour added to portray events and times – and minimalist set work brilliantly together. The tree of knowledge is a tower of brown paper with some twigs sticking out of the top, and the ark is shown with just a few planks of wood. The wonderful puppets and headpieces to portray animals and birds are all made from natural materials of muted tones and are glorious in their simplicity, but lots of the animals are represented through dance by the cast and are instantly recognisable – there’s even a unicorn! The snake dance, tempting Eve to the tree is a brilliant piece of choreography involving most of the cast and will bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded observer. I must admit that the child puppets did creep me out a little, but the charm of puppeteers Daniel Miles and Guy Woolf eventually won me over.
Nic Farman makes the most of Union’s brand spanking new lighting rig, bathing the stage in delicate colours that enhance the story sympathetically.
The music is wonderful – with a range of genres included. There are full on big Broadway tunes, Bluesy numbers, hints of Gospel, but they all gel together and no number feels out of place or a filler. The cast are especially strong in the unaccompanied harmony sections, and musical director Inga Davis Rutter and her musicians are a very talented bunch.
Director Christian Durham has created a stunningly beautiful production. Children of Eden feels fresh and has a charming innocence that many musicals lack. There aren’t many shows around that make you feel this good, and I urge you to get down to the Union to see it.