Children of Eden

(Harvest Rain Theatre Group)


Book by John Caird, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Pro-am production

In the red corner, God, Adam and Noah. And in the blue corner Eve, Cain and Japheth (although it should really be Ham).

Who are the heroes and who the villains in this little line-up? Conventional believers will say it’s the former trio who are the heroes, but more liberated readers of the bible, and those with a modern ethos, will realise that the winner’s belt should go to the other three, the rebels and the thinkers.

For who would want (or could worship) fathers like these? They’re all dogmatic, capricious and unforgiving; they make rules for the sake of it and allow no questioning; they can’t see past their own power or accept any reaction except humble obeisance. “Don’t touch this tree,” says God, without giving any reason except that to do so will bring death. It’s the worst thing a father can do to a child – to make a prohibition even more tempting by drawing attention to it, and then demanding that the transgressors make impossible choices when they are being punished. He wants to keep his children submissive, innocent and, above all, ignorant, for the forbidden fruit is from the Tree of Knowledge.

This is where biblical purists like me get very annoyed, because in Genesis it’s the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that’s out of bounds, not knowledge in general. But why let accuracy get in the way of a good story? And while I’m on the subject, why does writer John Caird put another, equally different gloss on the story of Cain and Abel? He makes us think that the milksop Abel, who gets the chop from his feisty brother Cain, brings nice gentle offerings to God like fruit and veg, whereas in the real Genesis story it’s Cain who is the agriculturalist, and Abel the hunter, whose burnt offerings this bloodthirsty God prefers to Cain’s vegetarian diet. Why can’t people who write musicals based on the bible at least get the facts right? And why, while I’m in this mood, does Caird make Noah’s son Japheth the rebel and sends him south, whereas biblically it’s really Ham who gets the rough end of the stick? No wonder people are confused, if they’re being fed these kinds of self-serving misreadings.

But never mind the theology, look at the show. It’s loud, brash and boisterous, the kind of thing that Harvest Rain does so well, and Josh Mcintosh’s designs are a delight, from the colour-co-ordinated sons of Noah to the enchanting animal heads as the creatures go into the ark (I especially liked the aardvarks). But kids will still not be able to find out whether Adam and Eve have belly buttons, which was the great theological question of my childhood, for the tough feminist Eve and her wimpy daddy-obsessed brother/friend/husband (it’s a little coy here about whether they actually have sex in the Garden of Eden) are clad in painted floaty bodysuits which reveal nothing, not even Penny Farrow’s pregnancy. “Will she make it to the end of the five-week run?” is the question on everyone’s lips.

As usual, it’s a strong cast. Jack Bradford makes an irritating but effective God, in fine voice and changing moods as easily as a manic depressive; Penny Farrow as Eve made the feminists in the audience cheer (even though I was probably the only one) when she defied him and stood up to Adam-the-Wimp, played and sung to perfection by Michael Balk.

Grant Couchman again excelled as Noah, so solid and irritating that I wanted to kick his staff away and teach him a lesson in basic human-kindness; but for me the pick of them all was the spunky Luke Kennedy doubling as heroes Cain and Japheth. He has a voice, a personality and an enormous stage presence, and is perfectly cast as a hero.

Stephen Schwartz is probably best known for his 1971 smash hit Godspell, and although Children of Eden was composed 20 years later, it still has a very seventies feel to it – or is it just the production? Lots of mass singers on stage flashing eyes and teeth like graduates fresh from dancing school; lots of coloured lights and wafting cloaks in rainbow colours (but why no rainbow at the end of the Flood?); lots of thrilling chorus work and, interspersed with all this colour and movement, three stories from Genesis – the Creation and Fall, the Cain and Abel story, and Noah and the flood that wiped out all the population except eight human beings and a breeding pair of each animal, bird and insect. (We presume the fish didn’t need rescuing.) God, Adam and Noah are all very bad fathers, irrational bully-boys at best, but by the end of the show it’s only Adam and Noah who see the error of their ways. God, who caused the horrible stuff-up in the beginning, never has to apologise or even explain, but goes about being sad and wussy because he’s all lonely, for even though he invented Man (no gender-free vocabulary here) to worship him, the beastly creature won’t even do this. Oh, grow up, God! Have you ever seen a genuine family?

Whereas Eve is the one with guts, who is impatient to go Beyond, to break through the barriers, to find out things for herself rather than being passively submissive at the feet of her father and husband. Go, Eve, you good thing! Her son Cain has inherited her feistiness, and although he kills his soppy younger brother Abel, and is condemned (with all his progeny) to carry the mark of sin on his brow, tastefully rendered here by a red headband, he’s the one who attracts our admiration because he has the courage to stand up for what he believes and take his punishment like a hero.

And in the third story, Noah’s son Japheth breaks through the class and race barriers to insist on bringing on board his girlfriend, a daughter of Cain and a humble maidservant, because he lervs her. How lovely, especially when it all works out in the end, and they end up as three different tribes with the implication that they’ll all live in peace and harmony for ever. Dream on! Perhaps there should be a sequel featuring the Tower of Babel and Joseph and his brethren and the exile in Egypt to show it like it really is.

But, as in all good musicals, the ending echoes Pangloss’s philosophy in Candide, that all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and there’s a new baby called Eve to carry on the human race (cute, eh, but where’s her husband going to come from if her parents journey to the west?), and everyone is forgiven and all are going to live happily ever after until they die.

Except God, that is, who in this musical is totally beyond redemption as far as I’m concerned.

Directed by Tim O’Connor

Designer Josh Macintosh

Playing until 31 March 2007, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, with one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 1st March 2007)