Theatre review: Emil and the Detectives at the National Theatre

Like another famous children’s story, Erich Kastner’s 1929 book begins with a lone child despatched by his mother on a perilous journey with a present for grandma.

Emil isn’t venturing into the woods, but taking a train to Berlin, and instead of a wolf, the predator is sinister flick-knife-carrying ‘financier’ Mr Snow, who robs the 140 Marks pinned into his pocket while he sleeps.

Stumbling out at the wrong station, the 10-year-old finds himself in a hectic city of rushing traffic and aggressively unsympathetic adults, before linking up with an army of street urchins who turn detective to track the dastardly villain through the German capital.

Bijan Sheibani’s energetically choreographed production deploys a cast of 50 kids, Bunny Christie’s eye-catching monochrome expressionist set, and an array of low tech but inventive stagecraft to thrilling effect.

There are heart-stopping chase sequences – into sewers evoked by torches and sound effects or following the children’s sightings of Mr Snow on a giant street map.

There’s a special enjoyment and identification for young audiences like my nine-year-old when the main characters are kids – wisecracking street kid Toots, tomboyish Pony the Hat, endearing Tuesday, and budding Communist The Professor – are if not always perfectly projected, played without a whiff of stage school showy self-consciousness.

For this is primarily a tale of empowerment of the disenfranchised, poor and powerless kids of Berlin taking back control.

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Reporting the theft is useless as the sinister authoritarian storm-trooper-esque officer would back Snow’s word against Emil’s.

But at the end the audience is urged to “stand up for Emil, stand up for justice!”

It’s rather dark for a children’s show. Beijani ratchets up the jeopardy by ladling on threatening Weimar-era undertones, with scenes in a decadent cabaret club, and a vicious suspicion of foreigners, liberals and young ‘hoodlums’.

While delivering a visually arresting and gripping adventure yarn, he reminds us that in less than a decade, these kids will be adults, witnessing Kristallnacht.


Until March 18.

Bridget Galton