Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre (Olivier), London – review

Under Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre has developed a strong reputation for not-quite-alternative Christmas productions: shows that are neither pantomimic nor self-consciously subversive, but which celebrate the seasonal virtues in a secular way without tinsel or artificial snow.

It was not an obvious decision to give this year’s such show to Bijan Sheibani, whose recent directorial record at the NT has been erratic: for every triumph like Wesker’s The Kitchen there has also been a Damned By Despair, the kind of production that makes “interesting” such a notorious euphemism. However, Sheibani is on top form with this adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1928 novel in which a small-town boy visiting Berlin almost inadvertently recruits a gang of young “detectives” to track down the man who stole the money he was due to give his grandmother.

Carl Miller has a long and honourable record as a writer and adapter of plays for young people, and he and Sheibani work fluently with this material, including bits of boisterous action (a chase through the auditorium, a “Tinkerbell” moment at which we all literally stand up in support of Emil) but without ever condescending or watering down the urban realism that made Kästner’s book so radical on its publication. The young detectives track Mr Snow through the identifiable streets of Berlin’s Schöneberg and make their own trenchant observations about the politics and economics of the city at that time. It’s an exhilarating cross between Fritz Lang’s M and the Famous Five. Bunny Christie’s design is that of a black-and-white Expressionist action film, all crazy angles and rows of what could be both apartment windows and film sprocket holes; the video projections are sometimes reminiscent of animator Oskar Fischinger.

My companion wondered why there were so few children in the press-night audience. It turned out they were all onstage. Sheibani has marshalled three teams of 50 children each (designated, delightfully, teams Drew, Marple and Sherlock) together with some excellent principals: among the group I saw were Ethan Hammer as an upright Emil, Georgie Farmer as wide-boy Toots and Izzy Lee virtually defining the word “feisty” as Pony the Hat. As the villainous grown-up Snow, Stuart McQuarrie even grouses at the rear stalls as he is led out through the back of the auditorium. Other Christmas shows may license us to be childish; this is gloriously, and properly precociously, childlike.


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