The Children Of Eden

Stephen Schwartz has written work of enduring popularity and work of cult status too. In the popular list you will find Wicked, Godspell and more recently Prince of Egypt, crossing between the lists perhaps sits Pippin and firmly in cult The Children of Eden, a commercial flop for sure but a show that has found its place in small theatres and community companies. And given that the book is based on Genesis and the stories of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel and then Noah it might come as no surprise.

Schwartz is perhaps victim of not choosing his books or his writers well. This might all sound like the lead in to a rather indifferent review, but read on.

How many of us can actually remember the detail of those bible stories? I for one had dim and distant memories but I was soon immersed in the strange and gory glory of those tales. This new production is built around a concept by Charles Lisanby and that concept drags this odd piece firmly into a present where these bible stories are revealed as stories of prejudice, moral conflict, familial trauma and parenting and moves on to issues of dissent, global warming and ecological disaster but at the very heart this is about family and in making this the core of the show Lisanby and director Graham Hubbard make this work and work well.

The production is a collaboration between Union Theatre and London School of Musical Theatre and acts as a brilliant showcase for some emerging talent. The staging is simple but very effective a, set made of steel gantries and steps, beautifully lit, costumes that are simple and do not distract but are occasionally allowed to amuse, and choreography that does the same. The serpent in the garden of Eden is quite brilliant with a generically northern head, a leering wicked embodiment, and a camp rattling tail with a a chorus line of kicking redheads forming the body.

But I am getting ahead of myself, ignoring the dramatic act of creation where god, the father, builds the earth and all that is in it, including the reveal of Adam and Eve in a Frankenstein like manifestation. The father is played by Anneka Needham, a bold move that reflects the feminist joke that god is a woman, and Needham more than lives up to the part with a dark and soaring voice and a magnificently imperious presence. Eve is played by Hannah Edser, later to play Mama Noah (in a suit that would not have looked out of place on the back of Margaret Thatcher or Edwina Currie), and shows the musical theatre talent that I most admire, the ability to act a song and not just sing it, ánd the voice is very fine indeed.

Ollie Wray plays both Adam and Noah and does so with the same skill, a powerful voice for sure but never used, or should say abused, to stray from drama into pop diva. Wray goes from naive to knowing and then fragile as Eve eats from the tree of knowledge and gets them chucked out of Eden by a rather unforgiving god, yes it does get you wondering about the “All loving, all forgiving” deity. And what follows stirs those feelings further as we see hate lead to violence and murder, to families torn by loyalty and belief. Wray’s Noah is equally torn between his loyalty to a disturbingly absent deity when then go wrong and to his family.

Throughout those threads of racial prejudice are there but never stronger than his conflict on the ark.

Also worthy of note are both Cain and Abel, Max Pascoe and Harvey Zaffino, fine voices and believable in all of their roles as brothers.

The Chilren of Eden, a fine ensemble, are superb, from the rousing choruses to the beautifully voiced a Capella moments of spine tingling clarity. The whole ends with a stunning duet from Katie Wilkinson and Lizzie Wood, a bold move that reaches deep into the gospel tradition as they rise above the ensemble in a crescendo of joy, or is it an expression of relief that the rain has stopped, the flooding subsided and the family drawn back together?

It’s clear to see how this piece falls onto that cult list, but in this intelligently rethought and no doubt in part rewritten adaptation it could easily slide onto the popular list.

Andrew Kay

Union Theatre

15 December

Rating: ★★★★★

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