Emil and the Detectives: Theatre review - 'a funny, wishful Christmas show'

4.00

Olivier, National Theatre

You get the exhilarating impression that there must be as many children on stage as there are in the audience at Emil and the Detectives, this year's Christmas show at the National.  And that's as it should be because Erich Kastner's much-loved 1929 novel – adapted here by Carl Miller – is a funny,wishful tale about the solidarity and resourcefulness of the gangs of children who join forces to outmanoeuvre the nefarious and obstructive adult world.  Like the Enid Blyton stories of precocious sleuths, the book both tapped into fantasies of omnipotence and left me feeling a mite abashed at the passivity of my own life when I read it as a boy.  

Child-power rules in Bijan Sheibani's witty, whirling production in which fifty-odd kids a night (there are three rotating casts) give chase through the streets of Berlin to the dastardly monocled and bowler-hatted villain who robbed Emil on the train of the 140 hard-earned marks that his widowed mother was sending to Grandma.  The show, which (with the wisdom of hindsight) is darker and grittier than the novel, manages to give a starring role to the Berlin of 1929 without dwarfing the comic charm and the touches of poignancy in the original.

The pieces plunges a child from the provinces into the teeming metropolis and, with its tilted black and white projections, Bunny Christie's brilliant design draws on German expressionist film to convey the dizzying feel of the place.  Street maps dissolve into neon grids, geometric but unsettlingly lopsided.  There's a Vorticist eye that becomes part of the network of sewer tunnels through which, in an added Third Man-like episode, Emil pursues the thief.  There are flashes of Cabaret decadence.  The child detectives even have a proto-Nazi in their midst spouting hatred of foreigners: “They take what's ours, so we'll take some back”.

The  production keeps faith, though, with the human scale of the story, thanks to the playful warmth and shrewd adjustments in Miller's stage version and to the remarkably engaging performances by the child actors.  Ethan Hammer, who played the role on press night, is excellent as Emil, showing the pluck of the boy and his keen sense of responsibility for his widowed mother (Naomi Frederick).who struggles to make ends meet as a hairdresser.   Miller brings the latter, distraught and baffled, to Berlin before the money has been retrieved and there's a painful moment when the loyal lad is forced into appearing to reject her. 

Georgie Farmer (again on press night) is very amusing as the lanky streetwise artful dodger Toots and Daniel Walsh (ditto)is a delight as the omniscient and well-nicknamed Professor.  Stuart McQuarrie gives the monocled, dumpling-loving villain, Mr Snow, a presence that is both unnerving and absurd.  In Miller's version, he tries to tempt Emil with the offer of a partnership in crime (“it can be lonely in the financial sector”) but our hero is having none of it.  When things look bad, we are invited, as an audience, “to stand up for Emil”.  Who could refuse?  Warmly recommended.

To February 14; 0207 452 3000

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot