Review: Emil and the Detectives at the National Theatre, Olivier stage

“The best stories are about dastardly crimes”, Emil says at the start of the play. And so they are. It might be hard to define crime though. Emil thinks drawing mustaches on a statue will land him in prison, and then he meets Mr Snow and becomes the victim of a real crime. And in 1929 Berlin, it all plays out in the shadow of the biggest crime of all.

Daniel Patten as Emil, Stuart McQuarrie as Mr Snow. Photo by Marc Brenner

Daniel Patten as Emil, Stuart McQuarrie as Mr Snow. Photo by Marc Brenner

Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, adapted for the stage by Carl Miller and directed by Bijan Sheibani, is the story of a small boy going to the big city and growing up by way of solving a crime, finding friends and standing up to authority. The plot is thin, and it occasionally shows. Modern parallels are heavy-handed and the script doesn’t have the snappiness we are used to from other family offerings on screen and stage.

On the other hand, brilliance frequently shines through. With over 50 children on stage, the result is not always slick but the energy is explosive. There is a very thin line between the children performing (most of them without professional experience or aspirations) and the children in the audience and the production is at its best when these boundaries are blurred.

Sequences are staged with playfulness and open-hearted charm: in a particularly memorable scene, the stage changes from the street to the sewers with the simplest and most atmospheric devices. The design by Bunny Christie is exquisite. A lopsided city with the buildings converging at the top, it creates illusions and spirals, and suggests the dizzy feeling of looking up at skyscrapers. At the same time, it echoes memories of the 1960s: the last image of the first half is straight out of James Bond. Later on, the same backdrop echoes Pink Panther.

Daniel Patten’s Emil is unassuming but soulful, with a relaxed quality that draws you in. Jessica Daugrida as Pony is both feisty and graceful and Samuel Fava as Toots is confident, street smart but still with the tenderness of a child. From the adults, Stuart McQuarrie as Mr Snow presents a version of villainy most ordinary. His presence is threatening in imperceptible ways, and all the more unnerving for it.

On the way out, the cast was collecting money towards the relief fund for the Philippines Disaster. A small boy asked Daniel Patten for an autograph while his parents and Stuart McQuarrie stood by. Adults, appropriately, were surplus to requirement. How is that for the moral of the story?

4 responses to “Review: Emil and the Detectives at the National Theatre, Olivier stage

  1. In your review re Emil and the Detectives. Sam Fava was playing Toots and NOT Billy Kennedy. Billy is in the green team and the blue team were on for both Saturday performances !!!

    • Thank you, I ‘ll correct it, It was quite a task matching the name to the child through the photograph captions in the programme.

    • Stuart McQuarrie got booed at curtain call. Which should consider it a great compliment, Bertie Carvel was getting booed at Matilda.

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