Emil And The Detectives is a classic story for children, written by German writer Erich Kastner in 1929, and illustrated by Water Trier. The Nazis burnt most of Kastner’s books, for being “contrary to the German spirit” but this one was somehow spared and went on to become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, translated into 60 languages, had five films based on it, as well as several stage productions.
Unlike other children’s stories, this was set in the real world, did not sugar-coat anything, and sent a little boy on a very believable adventure—not fighting giants and dragons in fairy-land but catching a thief in a crowded city. There is a moral, of course, but kids are not hit on the head with it.
The very simplicity, timelessness, and universality of the story make it possible for stage directors to let their imaginations run wild. A production by Australian company Slingsby, directed by Andy Packer with actors Elizabeth Hay and Tim Overton, was staged in Mumbai (invited by the NCPA) and was a marvelous display of light and sound design. Using paper cut-outs, animation and projection, and movable sets, the play was a visual delight.
Fatherless Emil (Hay) lives in New Town, with his mother, who works as a hairdresser. Like all kids in similar situations, Emil has learned to be responsible at an early age, even cooking simple meals with she is unwell. His mother sends him alone to the city with a large sum of money for his grandmother. He carefully pins it inside his jacket, but no matter how vigilant he is, Emil is only a child; a fellow passenger who gives his name as Max Grundeis (Overton plays him and multiple parts), drugs him and steals the money.
But what the man in the bowler hat does not know is that Emil is not one to give up easily. He follows the man—the sequence is done using paper buildings and a miniature model of a city—and then, a local boy, Gustav offers to help. He gathers his gang of “detective” kids (drawings of them in frames are placed on the stage), they work out a system of codes, passwords, telephone messages to nab the thief.
While children enjoy the storytelling, grown-ups can admire the technology that has gone into the production—the set-on-wheels of the train compartment is wonderfully detailed, right from the seats and racks, to the views from the window. Having just two actors makes it easier to tour, but one can hope for an Indian production with a bunch of actors bringing the detectives alive. It has the kind of story that can take place anywhere in the world, where there are clever thieves and even cleverer children… and mothers telling kids not to trust strangers.