Is there no limit to the depravity of the National Theatre?  Forging 20-Reichsmark banknotes, a discredited currency,  to flood an auditorium with them! Disrespecting bankers!  Encouraging grubby children to defy adults, and underage girls to ride bicycles recklessly around the stage with bespectacled urchins balanced on their handlebars!  Not to mention disturbing the serenity of the stalls with harum-scarum chases.  Whatever happened to those fey little  folksy posh-pantos in the old Cottesloe?

Good riddance, I say.  This enormously cast adaptation (by Carl Miller) of Erich Kastner’s tale of a smalltown boy’s adventure in 1929 Berlin zings with child-energy.   Sixty kids a night chase  after the wicked bowler-hatted villain from the train carriage, who stole the money Emil’s widowed Mum was sending to Grandma.  Emil enlists Berlin children:  his girl cousin Pony,  street kids, Hilde the newspaper-seller, Tuesday the posh little boy in a sailor-suit, and others from every corner of a fragile, vibrant urban society at the heart of inter-war Europe.

It reunites director  Bijan Sheibani with movement director Aline David, and as in their marvellous The Kitchen it mixes naturalistic and semi-stylized movement, whirling free and thrilling across the big stage.   Bunny Christie designs, and brief interiors slide on and retreat, but mainly the city’s people whirl and scuttle, bearing lamp-posts and kiosks to express the baffling streets.  Night comes with glimpses of a cabaret chanteuse and a man in suspenders; maps and buildings shine black-and-white on a slanting screen around a great vortex eye  which becomes – with ladders, Oliver-magic machinery and gurgling echoes – a chase through the sewers.    Echoes of Weimar poverty and prefigurings of Nazi authoritarianism hover in the air, understated but atmospheric:  they’ve invented 1930’s  film-noir theatre for kids.

The children, whether in respectable shorts-and-braces or rags, are natural and gleeful.  In the night-time vigil round a brazier they are briefly poignant, too,  as Emil (Ethan Hammer on opening night) speaks of his love and anxiety for his hardworking mother,  and from the less cared-for children comes a bat-squeak of sadness.   Of his confreres the most hilarious is Toots (Georgie Farmer on press night),  a skinny, specky, hyperactive artful-dodger astonished that Emile is still worried about his ‘crime‘ back home, drawing a moustache on Duke Augustus‘ statue.  Others fall into character with ease, clarity, good jokes and rousing defiance (“Grownups beat us, threaten us, bribe us – treat us like beasts!”).

And Stuart McQuarrie is the villain of every child’s dream:  a black-suited “bigshot” scoffing dumplings, monocle gleaming, evilly moustached,  with flick-knife and  bowler hat.  He even tempts Emil to the dark side:  “It’s rare that I find someone who impresses me as much as I do myself…it can be lonely in the Financial Sector”.   We boo him at the curtain call, and he beams back.  Oh, for heaven’s sake, grab a kid  as an excuse to go.  Two happy hours await you and your inner (and outer) child.

box office  020 7452 3000  to  18 March

rating    four    4 Meece Rating


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