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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Daniel Patten/ Ph: Marc Brenner

Kids outsmarting adults is a sure-fire formula for success – as Erich Kastner proved with his 1929 bestseller Emil and the Detectives. It has never been out of print. Germany first filmed it in 1931 (with a screenplay by the great Billy Wilder, no less), which was followed by a British version in 1935. A TV series appeared in 1952 and a Disney live-action version in 1964. The last filmed adaptation was for German TV in 2001.
Now, 84 years since it’s original publication, Emil and his intrepid gang of young crime busters have finally made it onto the stage – in an eye-catching National Theatre production with a cast of 50 kids, a couple of dozen grown-ups, a musical quintet and, most strikingly, sets by Bunny Christie and projections by 59 Productions that recreate the German Expressionistc look of such iconic classics as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
As every well-read school boy or girl will tell you, the story, reduced to its basics, is about Emil, a young boy, who, during a train journey to visit his grandmother in Berlin, falls asleep and is robbed by a bowler-hatted thief called Mr. Snow, of the 140 marks Emil’s widowed, hairdresser mother has entrusted to him. Arriving in Berlin penniless, Emil is befriended by a group of pre-teen Berliners who band together to help him catch the culprit and bring him to justice.
Carl Miller’s adaptation of Kastner’s perennially popular story embroiders the narrative to include a dramatic chase in a sewer (shades of Les Mis and Carol Reed’s The Third Man); while for the benefit of accompanying adults there are evocations of the hustle and bustle, the sleaze and decadence, as well as the dominant role played by newspapers in the Berlin of 1929. In effect, Miller is attempting to bring an added sophistication to a simple, heart-warming story that has, over the decades, survived very nicely, thank you, without it.
Though the notoriously cruel acoustics of the Olivier auditorium often render unintelligible much of what the motley collection of youngsters are saying, I enjoyed the delightful central performances of Ethan Hammer as Emil, Daniel Walsh as Professor, the most erudite and well spoken of the boy “detectives,” Georgie Farmer as Toots, and Keyaan Hameed as Tuesday. They all alternate with two other sets of children playing the same roles.
Of the adults, Naomi Frederick has just the right quality as Emil’s caring mother Ida, though the standout grown-up performance (as it should be) is Stuart McQuarrie’s as the thieving Mr. Snow. McQuarrie resists any temptation to become a typical hissible villain and is all the more effective for his restraint.
Director Bijan Sheibani has directed – or should I say choreographed? – his large cast with balletic precision and, in the main, delivered an entertaining enough take on this enduring classic. I’m not sure what it will add to the book’s reputation, but kids will lap it up.


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