Emil and the Detectives** (National Theatre Olivier, 6 December 2013)

Posted: December 7, 2013 in Theatre

Not booking for the National’s Christmas extravaganza means risking missing out on the next War Horse; booking for it risks having to sit through a mindless kids’ show. Sadly, although not entirely without merit, this falls more into the latter category. Written by Erich Kastner and set in Germany (mostly Berlin) in 1929, it is a simple story of a boy, Emil, who has his money stolen by a banker (very topical) and enlists the help of a horde of other children to reclaim it. The plot has no mystery, no twists or turns and, at about two hours with interval, it is stretched just about as far as it can go. Despite deploying much of the technical wizardry that the Olivier stage can offer, the first half of Bijan Sheibani’s production falls very flat. The second half starts well with music evoking Berlin nightlife of the era and includes an excellent chase through a sewer, but, overall,  it is not much livelier until the last 10 minutes when elements of pantomime are introduced to bring about a rousing finale. The leading junior roles are alternated nightly in a company that includes over 30 children, all on stage together at times. At this performance, Emil, a precocious lad, was played with confidence, but the characters of some of the other children were not brought out as strongly as they might have been, more due to writing and direction than to weak performances. Amongst the adults, Stuart McQuarrie stands out as a dastardly villain. Okay, maybe I am 60 years too old for it, but I found this show a real disappointment. As a postscript, it is interesting to note that the National has just opened two new shows playing in repertory in its main auditoriums – this and From Morning to Midnight in the Lyttelton; both are set in Germany in the early part of the 20th Century, both have a similar look, both have key scenes in a bank, a hotel room, a small house and a street. Perhaps thrift does not come high on Mr Hytner’s agenda, but would it not have been possible for them to alternate on the same stage, using the same sets?

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