Thursday 12 December 2013

Theatre review: Emil and the Detectives

It's a Moppets Christmas Carol in the Olivier this year where the National, usually preferring to cast adults as children for its big family shows, has taken its cue from the likes of Billy Elliot and Matilda and put a lot of faith in child actors. Many, many child actors. Many. Adapted by Carl Miller from the book by Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives is a story of Germany in 1929, meaning that right from the word go there's an edge to the show for the benefit of the adults, even as the kids get a story to get excited about. Emil (Toby Murray tonight, alternating with Ethan Hammer and Daniel Patten) has been trusted by his mother (Naomi Frederick) to go on the train alone, to visit his grandmother in Berlin and deliver her an envelope full of cash. When it goes missing, Emil decides to track down the thief, a notorious bank robber, with the help of the Detectives: The many, many children from all walks of life keen for an adventure. Many.

Bijan Sheibani has been let loose on the Olivier stage before with less than stellar results, but he finally seems comfortable there now marshaling his huge cast through a fast-paced, frantic and fun story. There's winning performances from the leads with the kind of unselfconscious comfort in front of an audience that's unique to kids.

One of the biggest stars of the show is Bunny Christie's set, which takes its inspiration from the children's obsession with the new Hollywood films, and excitement at the prospect of being in an adventure like in the movies, by framing the action in film rolls and a giant camera shutter. A largely monochrome design adds to this and helps create a rather gorgeous art deco look to the whole thing.

As well as taking confidence from Matilda's casting, Emil and the Detectives also has a little bit of that show's anti-authority spirit. Perhaps not quite as anarchic, but there's certainly an element of "us against them" as the vast majority of the adults are downright aggressive to the children, stamping their authority over them, and Emil's story is one of the children getting the upper hand. The fear and mistrust of youth has a definite political ring for the adults to tap into, and it's coupled with a hatred of all foreigners that given the setting (Christie's designs and Sheibani's directorial choices sometimes directly reference Cabaret) can be downright chilling, like when a woman accusing Emil of dodging a tram fare grabs his face and says "he looks like a..."

Skewing a bit younger than the National's big family shows in past years, the appeal for adults is a bit subtler in Emil and the Detectives but it's there nevertheless. Unlike some of those past shows I can't see it having a long life past this season but it's well-targeted at kids, who should get a lot of pleasure out of the sight of many, many kids rising up and getting the better of the adults looking down their noses at them. Just be prepared for the fact that, if the sight of a stage brat or two sends chills down your spine, the Olivier stage is currently getting flooded with them every night. Many of them.

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, adapted by Carl Miller, is booking in repertory until the 18th of March at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including interval.

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