A German Night at the National

Emil and the Detectives

Standing on the edge of a darkened stage, the villainous Mr Snow fled from an oddly menacing horde of child detectives and rushed into the audience with the (well-rehearsed) children in hot pursuit. Up the aisle he ran, out along the rim of the dress circle, and down again. At the end of our row, well-placed 'detectives' let him slip through their grasp. Hot-faced, murmuring apologies for causing any inconvenience, 'Mr Snow' squeezed his way along a row of seats just behind where I was sitting - only to be stopped in his tracks by a determined child from the audience who, evidently, wanted to sign up for Emil's detective force onstage. Release granted, the play went on.

Erich Kästner's marvellous book was the only one of an admired Jewish author's works that even Hitler didn't dare order to be cast into the book-pyre in 1933; Emil was just too beloved, too much of an icon to share the fate of Kästner's other works. Emil survived.  The book - Emil and the Detectives - first appeared in England as a stage play in 1934. Staged in this year of sabre rattling and wound picking, it serves - and perhaps is intended to serve - as a welcome antidote: a glorious celebration of fantasy and childhood that had an evening audience of English schoolchildren roaring with delight for a plucky little gang of Berliners who come to the rescue of Emil, the provincial from Neustadt who has (for this is 1929 and not everybody is sharing in Germany's resurgent economy) to recover the precious 140 marks which his mother entrusted to him - and which that devilish 'financier' Mr Snow has callously appropriated, while sharing a compartment with a small boy on a very empty train.

The production - wonderfully lit by Lucy Carter, designed by Bunny Christie and directed by Bijan Sheibani - nods homage in so many directions as to be almost dizzying. Black and white angled shots of Berlin come straight from German Expressionist cinema.  An extraordinary chase sequence through the city sewers offers a dazzlingly elegant salute toThe Third Man, with Mr Snow standing in for Harry Lime. Petzold, the largest and most disturbing of the Berlin street gang of lost children, reflects the mood of the National Socialists as he tries to turn the hunt for Mr Snow into a crusade against the foreigners in his city. 'They take what's ours. So we'll take some of it back.' 

But what struck me most - and seems not to have been picked up on so far in the reviews - is the subtle evocation of another, infinitely haunting allusion to dreadful times. When Emil's weeping mother waves her forlorn little boy off, with his single suitcase, on the train to Berlin, what Sheibani is surely intending to conjure up is the memory of all those desolate kindertransport parents, waving goodbye to the children they couldn't bear to lose, but knew they had to save. The poignancy is both understated and exact.

It's a wonderful production, full of drama, life and displaying a terrific spirit of camaderie among the huge child cast. And - most especially so in 2014 - Emil offers a welcome reminder that there's a human spirit that we can identify with and love in that country with which we rightly went to war in 1939.

   Added: Tuesday 04 March 2014