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Review: Emil and the Detectives


Slingsby artistic director Andy Packer has said that “the best children’s theatre is the best theatre” and this is very true of the company’s latest production, Emil and the Detectives.

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The original novel by Erich Kästner – adapted here by Nicki Bloom – began a tradition of storytelling wherein children had a voice, sought their rights and defied adults who had wronged them.

Slingsby’s philosophy of the importance of community and human interaction has the show beginning in the foyer with staff dressed as train drivers while they collect tickets, sell doughnuts and encourage younger audience members to help “plan a city” by cutting out buildings that will be seen on stage.

The company’s theatre productions always have a sense of wonder and magic, and Emil and the Detectives delights, intrigues and astonishes its audience.

Emil, played beautifully by Elizabeth Hay, is sent by his mother to the city to see his grandmother. Along the way, his money is stolen by an untrustworthy man in a striped suit and bowler hat. Tim Overton plays the thief, Max, and a host of other characters: he cleverly snaps from one to the other and brings a touch of humour and style to each of them.

As Emil pursues the thief, Slingsby brilliantly creates interesting, intense moments that involve small cut-out figures, tiny, angular lights and Quincy Grant’s engaging music. These effects draw in the audience members and connect them with the pacy story.

Elizabeth Hay and Tim Overton in Emil and the Detectives. Photo: Andy Rasheed / eyefood

The soundscape – including the sounds of crowds, voices or children’s choirs, jazz and classical music – complements the stage action and builds suspense, mystery and drama.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting and Wendy Todd’s designs establish a dark, sombre tone (because life can be like that, especially for a young person on their first visit to a city), but there are also surprises and splashes of colour that reflect the camaraderie, strength and determination that Emil finds.

In one scene, while he sits in a train carriage, a window reveals beautiful, colourful animations depicting passengers and landscapes suggesting the train is moving. There is also some sensible audience participation that becomes part of the narrative, is fun and adds to the sense of community involvement.

In the city, Emil enlists the aid of a group of young people who, like detectives, need to solve the crime of finding the man who stole Emil’s money. The creation of the child gang is simply staged but wonderfully inventive. There is a very funny car chase, a moving train in a city, and life-size shadows.

A through line of Slinsgby’s is the notion of children coming of age, and Emil is a young innocent in a world which, although beautiful, harbours danger and mysterious figures.

Emil and the Detectives is an outstanding piece of children’s theatre which makes it an outstanding piece of theatre and an experience to be savoured by all.

Slingsby is presenting Emil and the Detectives at the former Dazzeland site on the 5th floor of the Myer Centre until August 5.

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