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Garden of Eden re-visited

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Would you Adam and Eve it? One of the biggest West End musical flops of the past twenty years is rising from the grave this coming Sunday in a charity gala at the Prince of Wales Theatre, starring Gareth Gates and Kerry Ellis.

The unexpected revival of Children of Eden by John Caird and Stephen Schwartz, a jaunty trip through the first few books of the Old Testament, is produced with the best of all possible intentions and in the best of all possible causes: to raise awareness of Crohn's Disease, a very nasty and uncomfortable condition indeed, and one just hopes that the charity gala raises more than a few bob and gives everyone a couple of hours of innocent pleasure.

My hopes for the event are slightly tinged with guilt, for I wrote a savage notice of the orginal production. I was the snake before serpent. The review, published in the Observer, did at least have the redeeming quality of being fairly funny, mainly because I hit on the obvious pastiche Biblical line of reporting and didn't let go:

"In the beginning God, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber created the religious rock musical and it was good and God was pleased and so was his accountant. And God said, "Let us make more musicals. Let there be lights, and synthesisers, and girls in tight satin."

"And behold, there were more musicals. And one was Godspell. And its author, Stephen Schwartz, knew the director, John Caird, and he conceived and bore Children of Eden at the Prince Edward.

"And again, Schwartz bore songs of creation with Adam and Eve, and he bore songs of degeneration with Noah and his sons, and he bore a lot of jigging up and down in funny costumes, and he even bore a folksy tune for Noah. And, lo, he bore the audience. He bore the audience rigid."

And so on, right through to the pay-off gag of creating ordure out of chaos which, of course, was filched by the head-line writer thus scuppering what I vainly perceived as the rhythm and climactic progress of the review.

Although I did my best to convey the essence of the musical, and even highlighted a few of its musical qualities (well, one or two of them), the temper and the tempo of my pastiche ran riot and the show was obliterated in the "cleverness" of my writing.

At the time, I was mighty pleased with myself, of course. And the Observer editor, Donald Trelford, went out of his way to pat me on the back. The other thing I remember about this is that the piece had been written in about half an hour to fill a hole on the news pages; a paragraph at the end of my review column was yanked out and transformed into a prominently displayed show-off set piece.

Sometimes I wish I'd written more such reviews. Sometimes I'm glad that I didn't. So Sunday's performance will be a great chance to see the show for itself, unblighted by the reviews of the day, all of which were pretty damning.

What I do remember is that there were some very talented performers on show, including Frances Ruffelle (who was, at the time, married to John Caird), Shezwae Powell (who played Eve in a body stocking with painted-on nipples), Kevin Colson, Anthony Barclay and Ken Page as God ("And God saw, and was cross, but not for long, for he had a nice long rest in the second act and pride of place in the finale").

Children of Eden did not feature in BBC4's The Story of Musicals, unless it flashed by when I went to put the kettle on. But just as John Caird -- at the time of Children -- lambasted the critics for being blinkered when it came to the reviewing of "popular theatre" such as his and Trevor Nunn's RSC collaborations Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables, so in last night's final programme, the critics got savaged back by the artists for their responses to Aspects of Love and We Will Rock You.

The trouble about this was that there was insufficient evidence to prove the ultimate truth, ie that Aspects was indeed underrated at the time, especially in New York, or that We Will Rock You was, is, and always will be, meretricious hooey however long it runs.

The cause of the latter was rolled into the general catalogue of jukebox musicals and the argument that whatever becomes popular signals the vitality of musical theatre when, despite the odd flurry from Stiles and Drewe, we are still awaiting the next stage of the big-time British musical theatre revival kick-started by Rice and Lloyd Webber.

Musicals always receive a mixed critical reception, and that's because they are the most difficult shows to get right and the most difficult shows to write about. But quality will always out, as might well be proved one day by Children of Eden (though I'm not betting on it).

Look at Les Miserables. And that show was not even lambasted by the critics as John Caird and Cameron Mackintosh always insisted. It was wholeheartedly approved by the Sunday Express, intelligently attacked in the Guardian and the Observer and hyperbolically acclaimed in the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, Punch and the New Statesman. The Daily Mail was iffy but later recanted.

Oh my, you could write a musical about the passions that run so high when discussing them, which is all part of the fun and the pleasure. I'm as much looking forward to seeing Singin' In the Rain and Sweeney Todd in the West End as I am to seeing Floyd Collins at Southwark Playhouse and the revival of Ivor Novello's Gay's The Word at the Finborough.

"Gay's The Word, dear Ivor" read Noel Coward's telegram at the time of Novello's death, "and Gay is how we shall always remember you." He was certainly right about that, but what about the musical itself? We shall see.


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