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.
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