This great train robbery starts small – a mother’s carefully saved banknotes are stolen from her small son’s pocket, as he makes his way to the big bad Berlin he’s been taught to be afraid of. As Carl Miller’s new adaptation of Erich Kastner’s classic novel progresses, it snowballs into a charming – if not especially festive – miracle of kiddy ingenuity.
The establishing scenes, packing Emil from Neustadt’s small-town fustiness to big city anarchy, are beautifully handled. His mother’s hairdressing salon is a revolving world of first glimpsed, then settled into glamour. Mrs Wirth (Tamzin Griffin) inhabits the chair in style, letting loose hilariously paranoid fantasies of the criminal tortures that will assail Emil in Berlin. Or not so paranoid. Emil has a sinister on-train encounter with the villainous Mr Snow, who he purses round the city with a gang of children he meets there.
Sadly, the piece’s initial seamless and stylish energy is left in the luggage rack. Carl Miller’s script seems afflicted with a kind of shyness of adding to the text in any great way, making the piece feel slighter and shorter than its two-hour running time might suggest. The first chase scenes are all tightly-choreographed excitement, but as their circles loosen and spill out in the second half, they soften into padding. The gang’s conversations are similarly weak, sometimes suggesting impressive drilling more than believable interactions. There are so many, uncountable children – ten just in the main gang, with dozens more hovering as underused but prettily-dressed peripherals – that it’s hard to escape the sense that this is a musical that’s lost its songs. Their unison sing-song warning to Mr Snow is an exception – its powerfully bratty menace is more than a match for this portly, stripy gent in irascible search for riches and dumplings.
Far scarier than Mr Snow, director Bijan Sheibani has made the city of Berlin into the real villain of the piece. Bunny Christie’s bleak Expressionist design has a relentlessly monochrome aesthetic seems to belong to the more serious kind of opera – Emil is trapped and chewed up by this big city machine. The back of the stage is dominated by a huge, mechanical orifice of concentric circles, which traps Emil’s distant mother in Freudian space. This loyalty to the 1929 Berlin setting also sees Emil having a (strictly PG-rated) brush with the Weimar cabaret, and injects a self-consciousness into the narrative where he exclaims that his rapidly evolving detective chase is like being in a movie, just as projection flickers the stage into early cinematic life.
The aesthetic frames of reference are all lushly adult pre-war sophistication – the decadence of an sophisticated, intellectual society, not the more usual kiddy decadence of bright colours, detail, silliness and slapstick. Where most children’s shows are performed by adults, for children, this feels more like it’s performed by children, for adults. The effect is beautiful, tasteful and ever so slightly dour – a charming chase-about of a noirish hue.