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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review

Emil and the Detectives Radio Drama
Dramatisation by Katie Hims of the comic children's detective novel
by Erich Kaestner.
Directed by Jessica Dromgoole.
Broadcast on: BBC Radio 4, 2:30pm Saturday 17th October 2009
Duration: 60 minute
Mia Palmer

In this delightful play we follow country boy Emil Tischbein, as he journeys up from Neustadt to Berlin in Germany for the first time. Unfortunately on his train journey he has a substantial amount of money stolen and then enlists the aid of hundreds of Berlin street boys to help him catch the thief.
Emil: Joshua Swinney
Kaestner: Bruce Alexander
Grundeis: Ewan Hooper
Gustav: Daniel Cooper
Professor: Neil Reynolds
Traut: Bertie Gilbert
Peters: Josh Robinson
Tuesday: Harry Child
Pony: Agnes Bateman
Mrs Tischbein: Melissa Advani
Cashier: Tessa Nicholson
Jeschke: John Biggins

I found this adaptation very well performed. The narrator, Bruce Alexander, enriched the plot without over emphasis of his role. Alexander’s interpretation added to the simple yet descriptive language of the era and genre of the book (1939 and Children’s). Needless to say Alexander injected the right amount of expression into the story when needed for example evoking responses of suspicion against the thief, the desperation of Emil and gentle comedy moments. Throughout I felt that he held the structure of the play together remarkably well and with enough character in his voice to ensure that you kept listening yet never overwhelming as the main adult voice.

I did feel that Joshua Swinney’s performance as Emil was at times briefly stilted and slightly un-natural this is especially true in the character’s first conversation with Daniel Cooper playing Gustav. However the poignancy and respect which Swinney brings to the character when speaking to the Professor, with regards to the relationship Emil has with this mother, more than makes up for any momentary stiffness and is on the whole very convincing. Overall the best performance from the children was undoubtedly Neil Reynolds whose wry, natural rendition of the Professor was sincerely believable and added depth and dimension to the entire play. This is never more obvious than during the disagreement dialogue between the characters’ of the Professor and Traut played by Bertie Gilbert. With both performers flowing with the young characters sense of antagonism and hearty insults with little real vindictiveness coming through and therefore making them captivatingly credible.

I found the character of the mother in this tale to be played most charmingly and with disarming sweetness. There is only one sequence for the character of the mother and she has to balance and validate the character of Emil’s devotion and love for her which runs through the entire story. Melissa Advani, manages this admirably, showing her ability by satisfying the listener of the character’s main thrust with little actual plot time.

The play itself holds true to the book’s endearing narrative and style thus ensuring that the simpler and more innocent days of 1939 are not lost in translation to our modern times. The fact that Emil is left loose in Berlin by his Grandmother overnight and with her having little idea of what is happening would certainly not be a socially acceptable norm in any modern book or play. However it is in my opinion a mark of how enduring and appealing the story is that Hims did not feel the need to butcher the language or plot into modern social dictates. Leaving well enough alone is often something modern dramatizes can find difficult to do, especially within this genre. I feel that Hims should be applauded for doing just that and especially for leaving, by today’s standards, the somewhat overly long ending, true to the original. In modern plays and writings the endings are so often the climax of the story, with perhaps a few seconds of tie ups afterward, that to have loose ends and the gentle humor tied up in at least four stages after the most dramatic point is long past is, to this critic, very refreshing.

With robust yet never overwhelming sound effects providing excellent background to this play I found it overall an enjoyable and believable adaptation of this classic yet oft times overlooked book.
© Mia Palmer Oct 24th 2009

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