Children of Eden, Union Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

The Old Testament Book of Genesis provides the basis for Stephen Schwartz and John Caird’s musical Children of Eden, now revived at the Union Theatre 25 years after its brief West End run.

Taking the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah as its starting point, Caird’s book expands both tales to form stories of families and children – and, more specifically, of sons coming out from their father’s shadow and of fathers learning to accept it. And in director Christian Durham’s interpretation, we see a production infused with simple charms, great voices and inventive puppetry that all contribute to a vision of the Bible story that can be of inspiration to all.

As the heavenly father of them all, Joey Dexter sets about the act of creation with an almost Puckish glee, lending the production a view of a God very different to traditional interpretations.

His is a father that is considerably less statuesque than his creation of Adam, with Stephen Barry’s muscular frame dominating Act I. Thankfully he has the voice to match, as does Natasha O’Brien’s Eve.

As the couple move from being gleeful children, helping their father name the world’s creatures in ‘The Naming’, to knowing adults (under the temptation of the serpent, with seductive Gabriel Mokake backed up by a body made up of dancers under choreographer Lucie Pankhurst’s confident eye), Barry and O’Brien make for an effectively convincing couple as they first enrage their father, than become parents of their own.

As siblings Cain and Abel, who are first introduced as bundles of swaddling cloth, then charming puppets, before gaining full form, Guy Woolf and Daniel Miles provide effective, contrasting personalities, with Caird’s book crafting an interpretation of the filial dispute between them that makes both dramatic and thematic sense.

As Act II arrives and the time frame skips forward several centuries (as described in the act’s opening number, ‘Generations’), Barry and O’Brien take on the mantle of Noah and his wife, with Woolf and Miles joined by Kris Marc-Joseph as the couple’s three sons, the doubling of casting bringing out parallels between the show’s otherwise disparate two tales.

Among some simple but effective puppetry to illustrate the ark’s menagerie, Dexter’s father returns to convince Noah and his family to seek refuge so that the rest of the sinful world – all descended from Cain’s line – can be washed away and made clean.

The dominant performance in this act is Nikita Johal’s Yonah, the servant girl (and descendant of Cain) that Woolf’s smitten Japheth smuggles aboard. In both ‘Stranger to the Rain’ and ‘Sailor of the Skies’, Johal brings the same charismatic sweetness as she did to the title role of the Finborough’s Princess Caraboo earlier this year. Her duet with Woolf, ‘Whatever Time We Have’, is the romantic heart of the entire piece and arguably its finest moment.

The simple designs, from the linen costumes to the abstract puppets and the ever-present tree of knowledge, suit the brickwork aesthetic of the Union’s new theatre in such a way that illustrates how quickly the venue’s creatives are adapting to the space.

A quarter of a century after Children of Eden flopped in the West End, the Union has once again made a revival outshine its original production.

Continues until September 10. Photo: Scott Rylander

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