The National Theatre has big shoes to fill when presenting a new family production. The huge success of War Horse and His Dark Materials must make the prospect a daunting one, but Bijan Sheibani proves once again it’s the heart of the show that truly matters, not the elaborate puppets or epic storyline.
Heart this story has, as well as a few theatrical surprises to boot. Adapted from Eric Kästner’s 1929 novel, Emil And The Detectives tells the story of a boy who sets off on a journey to Berlin, only to have the money painstakingly saved by his beloved mother stolen from him on the train by a very suspicious man named Mr Snow.
Arriving in the bustling city and far from his country village where the worst crime possible is to paint a red nose on the town statue, Emil finds amongst the scary metropolis unexpected allies in Berlin’s mischievous, worldly and cunning children, who declare war on the dastardly Mr Snow.
Perfectly capturing the frustration of feeling too small and too young to be taken seriously by the adult world, Sheibani’s 1920s-set production is a celebration of children’s tenacity and optimistic spirit. With 50 child actors on stage demonstrating just that, the show moves at a fast, energetic pace, packed with fun, japery and just a dusting of jokes – mainly to do with the financial sector – designed for the adult ear.
Bunny Christie’s set appears to have stepped straight from the film strips of a black and white murder mystery. All futuristic angular lines and off-kilter perspectives, the Olivier stage appears to go on forever, framed by an aperture-shaped backdrop in and out of which villains appear.
Emil, played on press night by Ethan Hammer, is a rosy-cheeked, country boy through and through, his brightly coloured scarf contrasting to the sophisticated sharpness of Berlin, where all the children have muddy knees, monochrome outfits and wits far advanced from their tender years.
This is where much of Emil And The Detectives’ comedy derives, with characters who may be under five foot tall but are still playground champion light weight boxers or master poker players. Georgie Farmer as Toots is an Artful Dodger-esque wide boy, while Daniel Walsh is hilarious as the grandly named Professor who is possibly the city’s youngest – and most eloquent – communist.
With a healthy dose of inventive genius, a truly heart-warming moment of audience participation and a few interactive surprises, Emil And The Detectives is, even without sight of a single flash of green or red, a festive treat with all the spirit of Bugsy Malone and all the style we’ve become accustomed to at the National Theatre.