I have a confession: I’d never previously heard of Erich Kästner's 1929 novel, Emil and the Detectives; It just wasn't a part of my childhood. But if this stage version (written by Nicki Bloom and presented by Australian theatre company, Slingsb) is anything to go by, that was definitely my loss. And not just because it broke the ground when it came to 'independent-children-versus-devious-adults' storylines. It also has much to say about friendship and community; What makes a town a town? What makes it home?
This production creates wonder and magic out of the simplest of elements.
These are questions asked early on, but our hero, Emil (excellently played by Elizabeth Hay, who captures his lonely bravery very well) has to leave "New Town" to answer them, heading for the nearby big city where his grandmother lives. He's given money to pass on, but this is stolen by a self-centred, untrustworthy man in a bowler hat who's in his seat. This is just one of the many roles played by Tim Overton, who frequently switches between beguiling innocence and snake-like maliciousness in the blink of an eye.
The city-smart kids who come to Emil’s aid may initially be faceless cartoons, but using a mixture of projections, shadow-play, lighting effects and models, this production (directed by Andy Packer), creates wonder and magic out of the simplest of elements. Wendy Todd's and Ailsa Paterson's at-times sombre designs ensure items are frequently picked out of suitcases and cupboards with either humour or pathos, seamlessly textured by appropriately designed lighting (by Geoff Cobham and Chris Petrifies). Quincy Grant's lush, cinematic score, meanwhile, gives depth and emotional heart to the narrative, especially during those moments when Emil almost loses heart.
While there are some sequences of outright physical comedy (For example, the car chase across the city with Overton constantly changing hats and characters), it's often the quieter moments that linger longest in our memory, not least when Emil finally returns home to a welcome he simply didn't anticipate. This is a satisfyingly exciting tale, inventively told, that speaks strongly about children’s conflicting need for, and fear of, their first steps away from their parents' protection.