Children of Eden
Book by John Caird
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Based on a concept by Charles Lisanby
Along to The Union Theatre, that little ark of musicals which punches above its weight (a mixed metaphor if ever there was one!) for Children of Eden. Giving a new slant to ancient stories, this biblical musical uses the infinitely flexible dramatic framework of the Old Testament, the story of Adam and Eve and then Noah and The Flood.
To be honest, biblical musicals do not always rock our boat, so it was something of a surprise when we found ourselves gripped and, yes, unexpectedly moved by this many-layered fascinating show, directed here with panache and sensitivity by Christian Durham.
Created by New Yorker Steven "Wicked" Schwartz and English director John "Les Miz" and "Nicholas Nickleby" Caird, this piece has at its core the initially joyous and then choppy and poignant relationship between parent and child and casts an Anglo-American eye on the Book of Genesis.
God, always called The Father in the show, is a Brit (a haughty yet affectionate Joey Dexter) and more like a clean cut corporate Chief Executive, General or modern King cum President, or a kind of Platonic financial regulator - and, above all, a human Dad.
Yet his complacent best-laid plans go awry when he puts into practice his ideas. He's also a God who, as Children of Eden progresses, shows himself without the experience of sharing his life with an equal. In the end, without an absolute resolution, the Children of Eden have something to teach him.
The show has a chequered history and received less than kind reviews when it rushed into production in 1991 in an available but outsize theatre in London. With audiences then staying away, glued to their TV sets watching coverage of The First Gulf War, it took several re-writes, community theatre and youth productions to produce the present version.
After a bit of a cheesy beginning (the show rather than the performers), TLT and her own right-hand fired-up chariot found their initial resistance broken down. The child-like rhythms and simple tunes build up into something more complex as they reflect the increasing complexity and perplexity of this world from joyously newly minted to multifaceted experience.
But maybe this makes it sound more complicated than it should for a bitter sweet lyrical tale with characterful choreography by Lucie Pankhurst which takes an audience of diverse belief and non-belief with it.
American-accented Adam and Eve (Stephen Barry and Natasha O'Brien capturing affectively snub-nosed, wide-eyed infant delight in character and song) joyously partake in everything around them.
Musical director Inga Davis-Rutter plays keyboard in the four-piece band which also includes bass, drums and reeds. In a pleasingly unmicrophoned performance, occasionally words do get lost but this is outweighed by clarity in the narrative and otherwise strong singing and affecting harmonies.
The score carries the story through like links in the chain with inventive staging by Durham and design by Kingsley Hall with pastel nursery colours changing to harder edged grays and reds.
The journey starts from The Father's mighty preliminary act of imagination "Let It Be" put into reality through Adam and Eve's entry into Eden with the diverting "The Naming" of animals, the first unaswerable question, all leading naturally to Eve's divination of a pulsating living world with the possiblity of change in "The Spark of Creation".
The song titles give a clue that the chase for fulfilment is as much about new found lands and creative human aspiration through the company of others, in music or in any walk of life as Godly injunction.
Gabriel Mokake as the snake brings humour, verve and a credible argument, along with the storytelling chorus, for eating the apple of knowledge in "The Pursuit of Excellence".
And this is a show which brings dramatic life to fundamental arguments with reason, passion and lyricism on all sides within a family circle rippling out over generations.
With a dynamic take onthe striking down by Cain (young Turk Guy Woolf) of Abel (wide-eyed Daniel Miles) destined never to reach manhood, the first act of the family saga ends in a touching plea by elderly widowed matriarch Eve for "second chances" fearing For yet taking pride in the brood of her creation.
The second act is deliberately less fluent, the knots in the human story, as The Father seeks his ideal, become knottier and knottier. The first African-inflected song Generations introduces economically the passage of time and spreading of flourishing human tribes around the planet.
Yet the thread is continued by the doubling of the actors as the descendants of Adam and Eve and the contact with The Father ebbing and flowing as the humans pursue their own course.
The story is followed though with the tale of Noah and Mama Noah, The Flood and youngest son Japeth (Guy Woolf again), defying his father to take the servant girl Yonah (Nikita Johal, with a native American look, stepping out of the storyteller chorus) as his bride.
She becomes his wife - and equal - with the aspiration for the ideal always kept alive. Nevertheless there remains a troubling messier hurt, an irresolvable, contradictory unease alongside a story of release and redemption for future generations, giving this piece its modern currency.
So, as we're only human, we award a green light for an enchanting, fresh minted take on ancient tales.