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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Emil And The Detectives
Olivier Theatre  Winter 2013-2014

Adaptations of modern children's books have become a National Theatre winter staple in recent years, ranging from the extraordinary (War Horse) to the less successful (Coram Boy). This version by Carl Miller of Erich Kstnor's 1929 novel leans more toward the latter than the former. 

Emil, a small town boy, travels on his own to visit his grandmother in Berlin, but his money is stolen and he gets lost in the big city. He meets some friendly kids who spot an adventure in helping him, and soon every boy and girl in Berlin has been recruited to locate the thief and recover the money. 

Bijan Sheibani's production employs what must be one of the largest casts in National history, with a half-dozen key adult parts and about twenty adult extras, Emil and his nine new friends and fifty other children. 

Among the adults, only Stuart McQuarrie as the thief stands out, the actor skilfully generating some scary nastiness without tipping over into Panto villain excess. The other adults are used most effectively in tightly choreographed scenes capturing the bustle of a big city as seen by a lost child. 

The children's roles are all played by three alternating casts in mix-and-match fashion, and I have to report that the mix I saw was ineffective. The fifty extras were just lined up for one or two scenes to suggest the mass of kids joining the hunt, but given nothing to do but stand there looking uncomfortable. 

This particular Emil and his immediate band seemed woefully under-rehearsed, a general pattern of missed cues, tentative moving and speaking, and difficulty enunciating clearly or projecting contributing to a lack of momentum or urgency to the story.

It may be that other combinations of children have more to offer, but here only Lucy Hutchinson as tomboy Pony The Hat showed any real energy and personality. 

But of course I'm not the judge, and it is relevant to report that the many children in the audience (in families and school groups) seemed passive and uninvolved, showing excitement only at the very late moment that the bad guy is chased through the stalls.

Even a Tinker Bell-style direct appeal for an audience reaction met with only perfunctory response, driven more by the parents than the kids. 

The National Theatre's other family show this winter, The Light Princess, is filled with theatrical magic and wonder. Emil And The Detectives is not.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Emil And The Detectives - National Theatre 2013  
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