One of the greatest pleasures of entertainment in London is that its theatres have the resources to bring to life a favoured book from your childhood. This accounts for multiple Alice in Wonderlands but since Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the genre has hit the big time.
So it’s with a certain amount of wonderment we anticipated Emil and the Detectives, a book which inspired not just a ten-year-old’s sense of boyhood adventure but also a determination to see the Berlin landmarks that it depicts in the inter-war, pre-Wall era.
Emil is the classic innocent abroad. A ‘good boy’ dutifully dispatched by his hardworking hairdresser mother by train to visit his grandmother in Berlin, the trusting lad is robbed of some money which is recovered by a gang of street urchins who help him track down and unmask the thief. It has parallels in the 1947 Ealing Comedy Hue and Cry, which also uses the cityscape almost as an extra character in the plot. Fritz Lang-style projections in Bunny Christie’s rangy lamp-lit angular tunnel set make it look threatening and mysterious as seen through a child’s eye with glimpses through windows and doorways of the adult jazz age.
Like Ms Christie, Emil sees the world in black and white, and the story depends on a convincing villain realised superbly by Stuart McQuarrie as a combination of black-hatted baddie, and a complex twitching psychotic. Another highly praiseworthy performance comes from Naomi Frederick, sweetly calm and centred as Ida Tischbein, Emil’s mother. All the children’s roles are shared by three actors and on our night Daniel Patten made an engaging debut as an innocent but sometimes wise-beyond-his-years Emil. The other kids are possibly a bit over-drilled and while confident in their lines and moves can come across as slightly mechanical. There are audibility problems too.
Carl Miller’s super-intelligent adaptation brings the book stunningly to life and delivers real excitement in the chase to find the thief, against an intriguing background of the political situation — this is Berlin in the same period as Cabaret and the boys often paraphrase their own parents’ views about communist or foreigners although — set just two years before Cabaret — the J-word isn’t mentioned. He handles the tender relationship between mother and son, which is fundamental to Erich Kaestner’s writing, with finesse but smartly engineers a rift between them and thereby creates a further opportunity for pathos. You need not be ashamed to find a lump in your throat at the end, and several serious and paternal-looking gentlemen in the audience felt the need to blow noses loudly at the curtain call.
This could be a great big hit for the National and certainly has more to offer the imaginative child or the bookish parent than any number of commercial pantomimes.
Emil and the Detectives runs at the National Theatre until 18 March 2014.
We saw Emil and the Detectives on a press ticket provided by the NT.