The Little Detective Agency

Susan Mulholland

Northern Stage

From 17 November 2012 to 05 January 2013

Review by Peter Lathan

For me the Christmas theatrical season starts with Northern Stage’s production for the under 6s. It’s not just that it’s usually the first Christmas show to open but it’s always one of the best and frequently the best—and that includes the big budget pantos.

This year’s production, The Little Detective Agency and the Case of the Festive Thief, has the same creative team as always—writer Susan Mulholland, director Mark Calvert and designer Andrew Stephenson—together with two actors from previous productions, Carl Kennedy and Paula Penman, so expectations were high.

Lucy Little (Rachel Gay) and her little brother James (Robert Nicholson) are spending Christmas with their granny on a tiny Scottish island in the North Sea when they hear that someone has been stealing Christmas presents. So far it’s the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker who have been the victims so Lucy, who sees herself as a great detective, decides that she and little brother will solve the mystery.

And of course they do, for everything has to end happily, but not before they have met a sinister lighthouse keeper who, according to Lucy, has all the characteristics of a criminal—and, to cap it all, they can’t understand a word he says! They have to venture into the Smugglers’ Cave and even find themselves captured by the two arch-criminals, played with great gusto by Kennedy and Penman, who also take every other part: Penman as Granny and Kennedy as the Lighthouse Keeper and a radio storyteller (shades of Listen with Mother here!).

As always there’s music, simple songs that are repeated often enough for the audience to recognise and clap along with, as well as a fair amount of audience participation.

There’s great energy from the cast and their characterisation—broad brushstrokes which is what you need for this age group—was spot on: I particularly liked Penman’s dopey thief and Nicholson’s cheeky twinkle in the eyes whenever he scored a little victory over big sister.

But there was something missing. There were moments when the children in the audience became a little restless and there were more visits to the toilet than I can remember from previous years, a good measure of the children’s involvement: the fewer the visits, the more riveted they are. Perhaps it was because there wasn’t as much knockabout comedy or imaginative use of puppets and costumes as we’ve come to expect.

Please don’t misunderstand: it’s still a very good show and entertains its target audience but it doesn’t quite attain the heights reached by its predecessors. But then the bar was set very high.