The National has established a terrific tradition for producing shows targeting family audiences every Christmas but that aren't pantos, based on stories that are popular with children. It was in this slot that War Horse was born (and has gone on to be a show suitable for all seasons and all audiences, the most commercially successful National production of all time), as was Coram Boy (that subsequently transferred, albeit unsuccessfully, to Broadway) and His Dark Materials.
After a blip last year when a proposed production of The Count of Monte Cristo was suddenly cancelled after it was already on sale, the National have triumphantly returned to theatricalise a children's adventure story, this time mostly populated by a children's cast (there are some sixty on every night, in three teams sourced from local schools, making this surely the National's biggest show of all time from a casting point of view).
It's a bold and bracing theatrical endeavour and adventure that follows the journey of Emil Tischbein from the small town of Neustadt, where he lives with his devoted single parent hairdresser mother Ida Tischbein, to visit his grandmother in Berlin. Ida puts him on a train with an envelope containing 140 marks to deliver to his gran, but before he gets to Berlin, a fellow passenger – the mysterious Mr Snow – has drugged him and stolen the money.
Things may start a little leadenly, but as the adventure to retrieve the money – with a gang of nine fellow junior detectives he assembles around him, eventually joined by a whole army of fifty more – gains momentum, the show takes wing as a spirited and engaging show teaming with kids, jeopardy and exhilaration. (At one point they even embark on a chase around the stalls).
Bijan Sheibani's production is executed with a genuine theatrical flair that draws on 30s expressionist German cinematic references, and Bunny Christie's brilliant design makes it look like a black and white film come to life.
The kids are a sheer marvel (and on press night, Ethan Hammer was stunning in the title role of Emil), with two stand-out adult contributions, too, from Naomi Frederick as Emil's mother and Stuart McQuarrie as Mr Snow.
The result is an unmissable treat for adults and kids alike.
"... often enjoyable, especially with a gang of 50 kids on stage, talking like hard-boiled private eyes."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"It is all fantastically ingenious."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"... the true star is Bunny Christie’s stunning design ... it evokes the Twenties setting and has a magic all of its own."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard