EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES
National Theatre in the Olivier
Kastner's novel is not a period piece; it was written in 1929, about children living in between-the-wars Berlin.
It has remained popular ever since, with several film versions.
And now it follows His Dark Materials, War Horse, Nation and Coram Boy onto the Olivier Christmastime stage, adapted by Carl Miller, with music by Carl Englishby.
Two factors in particular make it the stunning success it is. One is the performances that director Bijan Sheibani gets from the huge troupe of children involved. They carry the bulk of the drama, setting the pace and the mood, drawing the audience in, advancing the plot. Three teams are involved [Drew, Marple and Sherlock – who could have dreamt that up ?]. Emil, a serious, determined young man from Neustadt, arrives, robbed and penniless, in the big city, where he meets his cousin, Pony the Hat, and the artful-dodgerish Toots, who help him track down the mysterious Mr Snow [Stuart McQuarrie], the man on the train who drugs him with chocolate and steals the money he's meant to be taking to his grandmother. These three principal children [not sure which team] all give confident, endearing performances, and there's support in depth from the rest of the detectives, too.
The other factor is the stunning design, faintly futurist, vaguely vorticist, by Bunny Christie. The huge stage is effectively used, with back projection often recalling the black and white adventure film of Emil's imagination. The Hotel Eldorado, a distant airship, the Kommerz Bank, all conjure up a wonderfully authentic atmosphere. Design aside, the staging is often very simple: the car chase, the tube train, and the sewers, where Emil's slow descent is one of the cleverest ideas I've seen this year.
There is a great six-piece band [Kevin Amos in charge], but this is not a musical. The direction, though, is often operatic in style – the apples, the final confrontation.
“Is this a happy ending, Mrs Tischbein ?” Emil earnestly enquires of his mother. “I think it is,” she replies.
And a gloriously fulfilling theatrical experience for audiences of all ages, I would add. There's even a chase through the stalls …