Emil and the Detectives

  • Kids
Critics' choice
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1/6
© Marc Brenner

Daniel Patten (Emil)

2/6
© Marc Brenner

Oliver Clement (The Professor), Stuart McQuarrie (Mr Snow) and Daniel Patten (Emil)

3/6
© Marc Brenner

Oliver Clement (The Professor) and Daniel Patten (Emil)

4/6
© Marc Brenner

Judy Flynn (Mrs Keuchen), Stuart McQuarrie (Mr Snow), Daniel Patten (Emil), Ella Kenion (Mrs Jakob)

5/6
© Marc Brenner

Naomi Frederick (Ida) and Daniel Patten (Emil)

6/6
© Marc Brenner

Daniel Patten (Emil), Tamzin Griffin (Mrs Wirth) and Naomi Frederick (Ida)

Erich Kästner’s ‘Emil and the Detectives’ is one of the all-time great adventure stories and an inspired choice for the National Theatre’s big seasonal show – a crowdpleasing leftie alternative for families who don’t fancy being bossed about by a creepy bloke with big tits this Christmas.

It’s all power to the kids in Kastner’s sprightly 84-year-old tale: plucky young country boy Emil is robbed on a train and left alone in the big city. He recruits a rowdy bunch of streetwise youths to help him hunt down a sinister bowler-hatted robber in the fast and dangerous Berlin of the 1920s.

The kids and their mean streets are the twin triumphs of Bijan Sheibani’s ambitious, whirling show. Designer Bunny Christie fills the huge Olivier stage with thrilling projections of ’20s Berlin: towering wonky oblongs and circles advance towards you like a child’s nightmare of skyscrapers and modernity, all speeded up for added danger.

The children are the only human element in this expressionist cityscape. More than 50 of them scoot, bike and race around the stage; vivid, energetic natural actors, without any of the jaded staginess that adults who entertain children often bring to the party. Emil (played by either Ethan Hammer, Toby Murray, or Daniel Patten) is a solid centre in a shifty world where everyone’s poor and angry and the jackbooted policemen are just as menacing as the dissembling thieves.

The prim moustache and combover of the sinister Mr Snow (Stuart McQuarrie) reference the grown-up tragedy waiting in the wings for these German kids. Carl Miller’s adaptation is ingenious and energetic and adds some much-needed feisty girl characters.

After the interval it does all go a bit ‘Cabaret’, coshing you with its post-Nazi politics in an unsubtle way, and departing from the tightly plotted novel into darker terrain. The addition of an angry confrontation between Emil and his sweet-natured mother, and a terrifyingly weird chase through the sewers, skews the story with the hindsight of adults. It’s also a shame that there were so few children in the opening night audience.

Despite its extra adult darkness, this is a terrific show that authentically reimagines one of the few really great stories written about and for children, and is guaranteed to give them chills, thrills and a lot of pleasure.

By Caroline McGinn

 

Average User Rating

4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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  • 1 star:0
LiveReviews|10
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Al

I had sworn off going back to the National after seeing some very iffy productions last year, so I was equivocal at the least to learn that as a treat I was being taken to see Emil and The Detectives, a family friendly Christmas show with a cast of more than 50 kids. Mmmmm Christmas, screaming kids in the audience, Bonnie Langford wannabes on stage - can’t wait. Anyway, I may have entered the building with a scowl on my face but I was charmed and won over. It is a lovely feel good production. OK so there are a few things that weren’t in the book and that plot wise do not really stand up to much scrutiny. Some of these changes do seem to have been made to allow the production team to show off their technical ingenuity – but on this occasion, who cares? If you’ve got it flaunt it. And to be honest, although the young actors were never winsome and carried off their roles with aplomb, it was the set and the staging with its nods to expressionist cinema that made the whole thing work as a theatrical experience taking it beyond being just a play with kids. As for the kids in the audience? There were a few, but not that many and all well behaved, well scrubbed, and well middle class – and therefore absolutely no annoyance to a curmudgeon like me. Overall, a lovely evening. More treats like this please.

Brompton girl

Great set and great idea mainly executed with great panache. Slightly clunky in places, but generally a good night out. Starts at 7:00!

Annielou68

Full of energy, a great set design and fantastic acting from both adults & children. The chase scenes were excellently executed and the feel of Berlin well presented. The audience had a real mix of ages and all seemed to enjoy. I would recommend for 7 to teens.

Rose

My resounding feeling on leaving the theatre was that it's just too much to ask a group of kids to carry this entire show. There was a severe lack of spark despite admirable efforts from the young cast. I felt that the show was begging to either be a musical, to add spectacle and oomph, or for adults to play the child roles, to bring a humour and worldly knowledge that might better command the space and help bring the story to life - as has worked so well in Coram Boy and His Dark Materials in the past and Elephantom, currently playing in the Shed. Bunny Christie's expressionist design concept was marvellous and in places gave flair and visual pull where performances were lacking. However, overall it felt almost as if a competition winning youth theatre had been granted the opportunity to perform on a world class stage and this, unless I were their parent, is not something I would pay £48 plus a booking fee for.

Schleifer

Wow! What a wonderfully busy and enjoyable show. The play is set out like a 1940s movie and makes great use of lighting, projections and graphics to create the cinematic look. They're also very clever in the way they move the stage and props about to create the sense of travelling all over Berlin. In a great a wonderful scene where Emil chases the thief, lamp=posts and street markings shuffle around a moving stage, and Berliners change direction in reaction to this, you feel as if you have traveled wide across Berlin. I also loved that the audience was so demonstrative. About half the audience was made up of kids and they were very enthusiastic and seemed right at home at the National. I love this place for kids, it is so unstuffy.

collette osullivan

I went and saw this show last night and it was amazing. The story was great the kids were excellent and the lighting and effects were great too! Loved it and would definitely go and see it again.

Elaine Harper

I think K Thompson should perhaps not buy tickets to a preview! Things always get changed before the opening night and I have now seen it twice (on first preview night and more recently) and it is now wonderfully slick and very atmospheric. The kids have really got into their roles and are doing a great job. Much better than seeing some Z list filled panto.

P James

I can only say that the previous reviewer must have been extremely unlucky. We saw the play last night and it was absolutely fantastic. It was a big relief after the truly awful "Light Princess". The sets and visual effects were wonderful as were the performances. (A special mention to the youngster playing "Toots"). We took our 8 and 12 year old and both were gripped from beginning to end (as were their parents)....I can't recommend highly enough!

K Thompson

This was a painfully slow production, mainly due to the seeming inexperience of the child actors who are for the most part the only people on stage and therefore the ones carrying the show. I'm assuming these youngsters were plucked from local schools rather than getting them from one of the well established Stage Schools in london? They just didn't have the vocal / physical skills or stage discipline to keep this show bubbling along in the way that it should. Don't get me wrong, they are far from terrible, and if this was a local school production I would applaud them heartily but if I'm paying top dollar for a ticket to the National Theatre then I expect A LOT better. The monochrome expressionist design of the set was impressive and along with the beautiful costumes wonderfully evoked the feel of Berlin between the wars. However, at one point it was so dark on stage that I struggled to see who was talking. I know this was a preview, but they really have an awful lot of work ahead of them to knock this slow and stuttering show into the fluent and thrilling ride that it ought to be. I wish them luck..