Emil and the Detectives

Erich Kästner, adapted by Carl Miller

National Theatre

Olivier Theatre (National)

From 16 November 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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The National may have a little bit of a struggle finding local youngsters to see this show but only because they must have around 200 on the roster of performers already, thereby reducing the potential audience.

Bijan Sheibani has been asked to work with Carl Miller's modern rendition of Erich Kästner's perennial children's adventure, written in 1929, for the theatre's Christmas show.

He takes as a starting point the artistic movements of decadent Berlin during the Jazz Age. Bunny Christie's design pays homage to filmmakers like Fritz Lang and the artists of the period such as George Grosz and Max Beckmann, creating a stylish look complemented by Paul Englishby's score.

Like Matilda the Musical or Billy Elliott, the stars of the evening are the children and the team on opening night was filled with potential stars of the future.

In severely provincial Neustadt, rosy-cheeked Ethan Hammer playing Emil is spoilt by Naomi Frederick as his overly-protective hairdresser mother, the actress adding to the drama by slicing a finger in the first moments of hair care.

Packing young Emil, complete with family fortune, off on a train to visit Granny in Berlin is what they did back in the old days, generally without mishap. This time though, an encounter with Stuart McQuarrie's sinister Mr Snow must fuel every watching mother's nightmare.

The upshot is disaster, for our young hero becomes tearful at the prospect of explaining his loss to impoverished Granny and then equally impecunious Mum.

However, our pocket-sized hero meets a series of rather rough local children who form a cohort of "detectives". They are led by cocky Toots and tomboyish but loveable Pony the Hat, played with gusto respectively by Georgie Farmer and Izzy Lee.

However as so often happens on these occasions, the show is stolen by the innocent youngest child. In this case, everyone present will have been charmed by little Tuesday, Keyaan Hameed giving a bravura performance.

Emil and the Detectives is a well-constructed morality tale that takes a worryingly long time to move into top gear but by the end, proves highly enjoyable.

The script makes a few subtle, egalitarian points along the way about social justice, generally voiced by Daniel Walsh playing brainbox The Professor. Most visitors though will come away happy thanks to a stirring final chase through the stalls and inevitable ending, which will ensure that young and old leave the theatre with smiles on their faces.