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