Sunday. An hour spent sitting in a chapel listening to words of wisdom coming from a priest who battles against crying babies and soar throats. The alter is his stage, technicolored in appearance from the morning light that pierces through stained glass windows of sorrowful Saints and Patrons. But today is not Sunday, it is a summers evening on a Friday, and the only biblical teachings I am exposed to is in the form a musical in a secluded part of South London.
The Union Theatre’s new location (adjacent to their previous site) is situated underneath a railway bridge and is the choice of venue for director Christian Durham’s production of Children of Eden. Based on John Caird’s book of the same name, the two act musical centers around the classic tellings within the Book of Genesis. The industrial feel of the theatre suddenly transforms into the whimsical as soon as the auditorium doors open, and is an element that remains loyal to the play through costume and design. The neutral colour palettes of the 11 member cast, pale green and brown tinges on the stage floor, and giant leaves capture the essence of being outdoors with nature. This is where the play begins, in the Garden of Eden. The story of Adam and Eve is presented through the perspective of a parent and child which in turn is the running theme throughout the play. The tale of knowledge as power, love, sacrifice and betrayal is told rather concisely through song, with each new musical number moving the narration forward.
With Adam and Eve being the catalyst for mankind and the Book of Genesis, it is perhaps not a surprise that this depiction is the most compelling in the play. Eve, the spontaneous and curious compliments and complicates the sensible and doting Adam, and breaks the heart of her authoritative father and creator. The casting of these three characters proves effective. Father (Joey Dexter) stoic and chiseled in his expression commands the stage and establishes his presence, whilst the defined physical appearance and masculine energy of Adam, played by Stephen Barry perfectly represents the origin of man as strong and dominant. However it is Natasha O’Brien’s bold performance as Eve that made me sympathetic of her misfortunate decision. O’Brien’s singing is so passionate that it makes you listen to her words and understand that Eve’s rebellion derived from longing for the unknown.
The fourth and most important character of this story is physically depicted through the ensemble. Minimalistic in the execution (the ensemble hold onto one another and move in tandem), yet its presence is captivating. The serpents singing, voiced by Gabriel Mokake, is so soulful in tone and smooth in diction that it perfectly captures the mesmerising charm that the snake is notorious for.
Whilst Act One focuses on the creation of the beginning and Cain and Abel, the second half of the play portrays Noah’s Ark. Design is once again kept minimal with wooden panels on the stage wall and blue umbrellas complete with draped blue tissue paper highlighting the events of the story. This allows other features of the play to shine through with the music, live band and acting all playing a key role in the success of the play. Stephen Schwartz’s (of West End and Broadway’s Wicked) style is felt as the story telling lyrics and rhythmic flow of the music fills this fringe space with bellowing sounds comparable to their West End counterparts. Anybody familiar with Wicked will definitely feel Schwartz’s influence as the songs are emotionally engaging, and in a sweltering auditorium, an impactful alternative to countless dialogue. ‘The Wasteland’ in Act One and ‘Ain’t It Good?’ in Act Two are standout songs primarily because they involve the entire cast.
Children of Eden works, and it works well, with the casting, performances, music, and venue. The occasional rumbles of passing trains, if conveniently timed to dramatic moments in the play adds to the tension. Previously shown at the West End and on Broadway to divided opinion, Durham’s version is a delight for musical lovers. With Schwartz and Caird masters of the theatre industry, Children of Eden is a heavyweight contender for choosing a show to see this summer.
Whilst a play solely recounting historical and biblical stories might not be everyone’s idea of Friday night fun, the play being told from the perspective of a parent and child provides an interesting alternative perspective. It is for this reason that the word God is never mentioned in the play and instead Dexter is referred to as Father. With this representation, it will make everybody in the audience reflect on a time they caused their innocently overbearing parents disappointment and heartache, but relieved that their punishment was never exile, curses or a life worse than death!
Children of Eden is playing at The Union Theatre until Saturday 10th September. For more information about the play, see the Union Theatre website.