Emil and the Detectives @ National Theatre

The National’s family Christmas shows have always been a pretty big deal in the past, and honestly, Emil and the Detectives is no exception. Where to begin explaining the excitement that was projected throughout this performance? Firstly, I have to mention the spectacular performances from all the children that were present on the stage. The horrible cliché “never work with children or animals” goes completely out of the window in this show, because all of the kids (and animals) were absolutely brilliant.

Photo: National Theatre

Based on the Children’s novel by Erich Kästner, the play is about Emil (played by Daniel Patten when I saw it) who is off to visit his grandmother who lives in the city. But on the train there, he is robbed by Mr Snow (Stuart McQuarrie), a respectable looking adult. Not wanting to upset his mother by losing her savings, Emil goes after Mr Snow, and bumps into Toots (played by Samuel Fava on the day), who decides to help him, and is joined by all the children in the neighbourhood along the way.  Fava’s Artful Dodger-like performance was very enjoyable to watch, and his character was instantly likeable when he appeared on stage. Even though he plays the villain, McQuarrie’s adds hints of humour to Mr Snow, which the adults in the audience can recognise. Plus I did find it hard to dislike him because he looked like Poirot and I just wanted to hug him.

Photo: National Theatre

The play looks great. Bijan Sheibani’s direction allows the bare stage to be transformed from scene to scene into a visually stimulating spectacle. The countryside Emil is from is engulfed in Mrs Tischbein’s hair salon, the earthiness captured with the colour green throughout the beginning scene. This contrasts the darkness and the grey of the city, where the adult ensemble work frantically to capture the fast-paced environment. At this point it is the projections designed by 59 Productions that takeover the stage. They capture the city’s modern and futuristic elements with bright lights and vertical designs, highlighting the tall buildings that are “tied to the sky.”

Photo: National Theatre

The play’s excitement and warmth appeals a lot to the children in the audience, especially when the kids on stage run through the auditorium chasing Mr Snow. I couldn’t help but get excited when that happened too because it was just fun being involved in the action. Even though it is a children’s show, it does have something for the adults too. The hustle and bustle of corporate 21st Century London is mirrored in the play’s 1920s Berlin setting, and the adults are reminded to pay attention to children and give them more credit, which they do right at the end of the performance when they’re invited to help Emil.

There was a massive smile on my face from the beginning to the end of this show, and I’m pretty sure everyone in the auditorium felt exactly the same way.

The Prince of Denmark @ Ambassadors Theatre

I was pretty excited before seeing this performance. Not only had I previously never seen anything by the National Youth Theatre, the fact that people online were raving on about how it had had a sold out run before, made me energised to go see the teens in action. However, when I did arrive at the theatre, the chick at the box office said they were having a “quiet day,” and that we could therefore sit in the stalls. There were 25 or so people in the audience. Maybe everyone had seen it already?

The play itself is set as a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, focussing on the young characters’ teenage years. Laertes (Simon Lennon) is annoyed that his sister Ophelia (Daisy Whalley) has been writing letters to Hamlet (James Hunter), and is worried she will start to fall for the young prince. While this is going on, Hamlet is struggling to cope with his father’s decision to send him to Wittenberg.

Photo: National Theatre

The story was great, the younger versions of the characters were great, and their playfulness and not-so-damaged-yet personas worked well in the moment the play captures. The play works especially well for the audience members who know Hamlet, and I particularly enjoyed the subtle allusions to Shakespeare’s play, like when Ophelia looks into her reflection in the river and says the water makes it seem like she is drowning. I think the play text worked better for me, more than the actors delivering it. Apart from a select few, the cast seemed as though they did not really want to be there.  To be honest, I would feel the same if was on stage and the first three rows of the auditorium were completely empty.

But the actors that did seem to be enjoying themselves performed very well. In particular, Louisa Beadel’s Guildenstern brought much needed character to the stage. Her cheekiness was very enjoyable to watch, and the fact that writer Michael Lesslie had combined Elizabethan Language with modern elements the audience could relate to, allowed Beadel to quickly gain the spectators’ attention. Plus I do always have a soft spot for any young girl who can portray a male character as well as a man could.

I see where director Anthony Banks in coming from, and I did enjoy the overall spectacle. The Grecian horse on stage did look pretty cool, the ensemble worked well together to perform a play for Hamlet’s Court, and the candlelight at the start of the play created an eerie yet intriguing setting. But overall, maybe the youths thundering at this playhouse need more work?