Emil and the Detectives part of the International Children’s Festival
**** (4 stars)
The original story by Erich Kästner was published in 1929 but still has a charm and immediacy today. Emil lives with his mother; his father is dead, and his mother works all hours to make sure Emil has all he needs. The boy is a loner, living in a small town [which has “everything I need”] and keeping himself to himself – he and his mother have each other, who else could they need?
Emil’s mother has worked hard enough that she can send some money to her mother, who is going to look after Emil in the school holidays while his mother works. For the first time Emil is to travel by himself, with the money safely in the inside pocket of his jacket. When he gets into the train, he sees a stranger sitting in the compartment, hiding behind a newspaper. The man keeps peering at Emil, and acting rather strangely, making bizarre remarks and offering him tea. For extra safety the boy pins the money into his pocket with the badge which belonged to his father and which his mother gives him to keep him safe on his journey.
Emil falls asleep on the train: when he wakes, he finds that both the stranger and the money are gone… He sees the Man in the Bowler Hat in the station, and follows him – but how is Emil to recover his money? While he is pondering this he is surprised by Gustav, another young boy, who offers to help. Initially Emil is most reluctant – he is completely unused to co-operating with anyone [the kids at school have obviously not been kind]. Eventually, however, he realises he needs help, and with Gustav and his gang of friends an intelligence network is set up which spans the city. Emil follows Bowler Hat Man and confronts him when, alarmed by all the children who are suddenly everywhere and seem to be looking at him in a funny way, the man attempts to deposit the stolen money in a bank. Will Emil get his money back, or will the grown-up’s story be believed rather than Emil’s?
Australian company Slingsby’s who is an excellently-played two-hander with Elizabeth Hay being plucky but naive Emil and Tim Overton playing everyone else, at one point doubling as Bowler Hat Man in one taxi and the driver of the one in which Emil was pursuing him, swapping hats and facial expressions with wonderful dexterity.
The set design was extremely clever. The train compartment came on as a huge box on wheels, and rotated to display the compartment with a wonderful assortment of doors behind which were concealed not only the various elements of a tea set but also the toilet to which Emil escaped to flush away his unwanted tea, while the passing scenery, Emil’s surreal dreams, and the crowds at the city station all passed before our eyes as the journey progressed.
Clever use of tiny puppets, shadow-play and models, including a small working model railway, produced the cityscape through which Emil pursued the thief – I found it fascinating, but the young girl beside me found it boring. The audience was brought into the action at various points as Gustav’s gang worked out the details of their operation: at one point they were asked to use a phone with a dial – which, co-operatively, they managed [though it’s doubtful whether they’d ever seen one before]. The bank had handy drop-down shelves to provide the thief with paying-in slips – I wonder if the audience had any idea what these were or what their function was? Gustav’s gang, and the crowd that assembled for the final scene, were very imaginatively created, and the soundtrack that accompanied the silent movie-like parts of the show was subtle and effective.
Elizabeth Hay and Tim Overton were excellent both in the drama and in engaging with, and engaging, the audience. There were some scary bits, some funny bits, and a lot of exciting bits, and I think the audience of mainly 8 and 9-year old primary school kids had a good time: I know I did!
Emil and the Detectives part of the International Children’s Festival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ended, UK Tour continues.