Reviews, News and Commentary

Emil and the Detectives: High Quality Kids Theatre

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Auckland Festival 2023

Emil and the Detectives

By Erich Kästner

Adapted for the Stage by Nicki Bloom

Directed by Andy Packer


Rangatira, Q Theatre

16-18 March

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Successful theatre simply involves having a good story and telling it well.  Sounds easy?  Well yes, it is.  Except it’s not.

However Slingsby, a theatrical production house out of Adelaide, have chalked up a string of successes by doing simply that.  And then exporting the outcomes.  This production, directed by Slingsby founder Andy Packer from an adaptation of the original German by Nicki Bloom, looks like setting some kind of a record for the company having already toured in Australia, USA, India, China, the UK and now it’s here in Auckland.

Erich Kästner’s novella, Emil und die Detektive, was first published in 1929 and has never been out of print.  It tells the story of a group of kids who come together to help young Emil find justice.  Very simply, Emil catches a train to visit family in the big city but all of his money is stolen enroute.  However the thief soon discovers that Emil was not such an easy target after all when a group of quick-thinking and resourceful children pool resources to track him down.  Can a bunch of kids work together to uncover and outsmart the true criminal? 

The answer is told in Slingsby’s signature intimate theatrical style.  Director Packer uses only two skilled actors, plenty of smoke and mirrors and, working with Designer Wendy Todd, has constructed a delightfully focussed way of shrinking big things out there in the real world right down to a miscroscopic children’s perspective.  Emil and the Detectives provides dark and light, intrigue and suspense, and it enthralled this opening night audience. 

The two actors are multi-skilled, the carefully outfitted stage management crew are on the ball and the lighting works well.  However the star of the opening night was undoubtedly Anna (5) who was attending her very first live theatrical performance.  At one point, and totally unexpectedly, she heard an old-style phone ringing underneath her seat.  So, doing what any five-year-old would do, she answered it and found herself in conversation with Emil on the stage.  Like a seasoned professional, Anna spoke calmly and clearly, remembered the secret children-only password and didn’t miss a beat.  The audience love it

There is more to the original novella than just a simple tale told from a child’s perspective though.  It is very carefully and subtly layered and has more than a casual link to the independent-children-versus-devious-adults genre (think Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series or even Oliver Twist).  Streetwise city kids, a hard-working single mother and Emil’s past brush with the law that all add grit and nuance to this satisfying tale.  It poses questions for children too.  How do we find our friends in the world?  How do we work together to defeat tricksters?   There is a plenty to unpack.  It is inventive, imaginative, and boldly theatrical,  not only for kids but for anyone who enjoys good storytelling – told well. 

So if you’re a teacher, see if you can get it on your class-outing list.  And if you’re a parent or a grandparent here’s your chance to go and see this show – with children!  They will be enthralled and so will you.  It is the perfect way to introduce 8-12 year-olds to the world of theatre where they may even become captured for life.

Very highly recommended.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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